Pressed to combat a growing labor shortage, credit card issuers are sweetening pay packages, advertising jobs on the Internet, and adding perks such as on-site karate lessons.

Though the number of banks with large card-issuing units is dwindling, the need for workers at all levels has not changed. If anything, it is intensifying, as issuers with national programs seek to expand. Credit card operations tend to be immune from layoffs, since the number of workers required to run a large-scale portfolio does not fluctuate with the market.

As consolidation has run its course, banks that have left the card business or trimmed their portfolios have simply transferred operations and staff to the buyers.

"You're not closing down card accounts like you might close down branches in a bank merger," said Thomas Facciola, an analyst at Lehman Brothers in New York.

Most credit card companies are actively seeking qualified candidates, everywhere from the call center to the executive suite. Human resources departments and executive recruiters are searching high and low, and many companies are constantly trying to woo professionals from competitors. Aside from technology, bank industry recruiters say there is no hotter job specialty than credit cards.

"In spite of the mergers and consolidation, there are absolutely more jobs than people," said Narinder K. Mehta, president of Mehta Consulting, a search firm in Mantoloking, N.J. "Our toughest job is to find the good people."

Banc One Corp. said when it completed its acquisition of First Chicago NBD Corp. this month that it would keep that bank's credit card facilities and employees, even though layoffs were possible in other parts of the business.

Similarly, when Banc One Corp. bought the credit card monoline First USA Bank last year, it swallowed most of that company's management and employee roster.

And just last month, Banc One agreed to acquire the $5 billion credit card portfolio of Chevy Chase Bank. It said it would keep all 1,300 workers-plus the card facility in Frederick, Md.

First USA, seeking to retain staff and add more, has begun offering incentive-based pay schemes and a host of other amenities. Workers at the Wilmington, Del.-based issuer can get on-site oil changes for their cars, and dry-cleaning services. And First USA is installing fitness centers with classes in karate, kickboxing, and yoga.

While such quality-of-life perks are useful in attracting junior people, competitive pay packages are the hook for senior executives.

"If you're not positioned right in compensation, you're not in the game," said Daniel C. Barr, executive vice president of human resources at First USA.

Susan Allard, principal of a San Francisco recruiting firm that bears her name, said she was speaking at a conference on job opportunities when the Banc One/First Chicago merger was announced.

"Everyone came up to me and said, 'You must be swamped with resumes,'" she recalled. But "for every person who wanted to give me their resume, five people wanted to talk to me about their openings."

Ms. Allard said Allard & Associates has been "even busier this year" than last, "even though there have been all these mergers announced."

The increased merger activity "might mean you need to hire less, but there is still a need for a lot of people," said Michael L. Granger, an analyst at Fox-Pitt, Kelton Inc. in New York.

At least one major card issuer, MBNA Corp., has long recognized the need for aggressive recruiting and retention tactics. MBNA, also of Wilmington, Del., said it has maintained on-site day care, dry cleaning, and exercise facilities for years, and said these perks have helped keep turnover low.

A rival card specialist, Capital One Financial Corp. of Falls Church, Va., is building its first employee fitness center, in Tampa, Fla. Capital One recently designed a new competitive 401(k) program to help "pry people (from other companies) away from their jobs," said Dennis Liberson, senior vice president of human resources.

The company said fast growth is the reason it has announced plans to hire 2,000 people by yearend. Capital One's Web site touts employment opportunities. And a new advertising campaign is dangling a fresh incentive: people who start work before Dec. 31 will get three weeks of vacation in 1999.

"If we weren't out there aggressively sourcing applicants, we would see some adverse selections that show up at your doorstep," Mr. Liberson said.

In a sign that the industry is working to stave off delinquencies and bad accounts, recruiters said the most sought-after job candidates are those with expertise in collections and credit-risk management.

As proof that card issuers continue to seek expansion, recruiters also point to the high demand for marketing and sales professionals.

"A year and a half ago, there was just a shortage of IT professionals," Mr. Liberson said. Today, he said, shortages in expertise lie across the board.

Some analysts said that as large issuers adopt more efficient management practices and labor-saving technology, a slowdown in employment growth will occur.

MBNA said it is seeing this happen. The nation's No. 2 issuer said it plans to finish the year with a 22% increase in managed loans, but the employee count has fallen since the fourth quarter of last year.

"I think you'll see lots more of that with large players, and that will result in lower employment," said Moshe A. Orenbuch, senior research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. in New York. "The growth rate of the employment will certainly be less than the growth rate of the business."

MBNA said it has hired 5,000 people in the last 12 months, but most of them replaced people who had left the company.

"The job markets are tight," said Lance L. Weaver, senior vice chairman and chief administrative officer for MBNA. Delaware, where credit card issuers are among the state's largest employers, has a particularly competitive employment market, he said.

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.