With competition fierce for graduating college and MBA students, many commercial banks are bypassing the top schools and going straight to the second tier to find job candidates.
"Regional banks like U.S. Bancorp have had a really tough time," said Lisa Messaglia, assistant director of the University of Chicago's graduate school of business. "They have tried to compete, but they are just priced out of the market."
Only five or six commercial banks come to the University of Chicago campus each year, she said. And of them, three-Chase Manhattan, Citigroup, and BankAmerica-are there to recruit for their investment banking arms as well.
"Commercial banks are having to target geographically focused students and visit more regional, second-tier schools," Ms. Messaglia said.
First-year salaries for investment bankers average about $125,000, including bonuses and tuition reimbursement, compared with about $90,000 at a bank.
Commercial banks simply cannot offer comparable pay packages, Ms. Messaglia said. They are "upgrading their salaries to become more competitive in the short term. But they are not able to match investment banks dollar for dollar."
Some of the nation's biggest banking companies deal with this cold reality by selling themselves as a lifestyle choice. Commercial banks, they say, can offer greater job security and more humane work schedules.
BankBoston Corp. promotes its ability to maintain a "work-life balance" among its employees, said Molly Bavelock, who recruits for the $75.7 billion-asset company's commercial side and its Robertson Stephens investment banking unit.
"There is the stability in commercial banking, where the market is less susceptible to downturns," she said. "Some students also prefer the training in commercial banks' programs, which tend to be longer and more thorough," she added.
But recruiting for a commercial bank requires "a lot of selling," she admitted. Most business school graduates Ms. Bavelock has met are looking toward investment banking for its higher pay, she said.
Generally, the presentations made to attract candidates for the investment bank are done by executives, not recruiters, and are a lot more "glitzy" in style, she added.
"With investment banking, there is more of a sales-type recruiting," Ms. Bavelock said. "Managing directors go on campus. We're not as snazzy with our commercial banking presentations."
Aware of the limitations facing commercial banks, Republic New York Corp. has adopted a very aggressive and ambitious strategy to attract talent, according to Michael Levine, who doubles as the company's mergers and acquisitions chief and its head of recruitment.
The $50.4 billion-asset banking company hires about six graduates a year, but it dangles enticing career opportunities to lure the best.
"We offer an environment where they are not pushed very far down in a system and told they have a lot of years and a lot of dues to pay before they can advance," Mr. Levine said. "In commercial banking, responsibility is equated with ability, not with age."
Mr. Levine said Republic does not try to compete on salary with investment banking firms. It tells job prospects that though they may make less money "they will end up ahead of the curve because of rapid advancement," he said.
For example, Stephen Saali, the holding company president, is only 34; he started as a management trainee straight out of Columbia University's MBA program in 1988.
Mr. Levine is 31 and joined Republic in 1995 after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business.
Republic, like many other commercial banks, tries to give recruits broad training. It offers a program that rotates management trainees through many departments of the bank.
Mr. Levine said Republic prides itself on its "intimate" atmosphere. "I don't think we try to compete salarywise. We aren't going to compete with the investment banks of the world. It's the culture that should appeal to you."