In the spring of 1995, when Banc One Corp. told Kenneth Covington his computer systems job would be eliminated, he wondered how long he'd be jobless.

But in August of that year, within two months of leaving the company, he started in a similar job at Barnett Banks Inc. in Jacksonville, Fla., as manager of project services.

In fact, "I was turning down some positions" at banks including NationsBank Corp., Wells Fargo & Co., and BankAmerica Corp., Mr. Covington said. "I feel somewhat blessed I was able to have that opportunity."

The offers came from contacts he made at a Boston convention of the predominantly African-American National Association of Urban Bankers, where he met a number of recruiters from big banks.

Thirty-five big bank companies are corporate members of the Washington- based Urban Bankers, and all have recruited heavily in recent years from the group's 3,000 members, said Debbie A. Smith, executive director.

Started in 1974 by 20 New York bankers, the trade group has grown to 50 chapters in major cities across the nation and one chapter in Toronto.

With a membership that is about 95% African-American, the group has become one of the main sources for banks looking for minority job applicants, said Mr. Covington.

Ms. Smith said the largest banks in the country are interested in hiring minorities. She said she routinely gets calls from executive recruiters looking for minority executives for upper management positions.

Banks are far from diverse in their work forces, Ms. Smith said. "There's still a stigma," she said. "There's still a feeling that rather than just having to do good, minorities have to do better."

"The banking industry is still a difficult industry for minorities and women," Ms. Smith added. However, she said, there has been a slow evolution toward making commitments to diversity programs. "The major banks have moved beyond lip service," she said.

The change at the banks, Ms. Smith said, came from community pressure.

"Banks realize they have to do this," she said. "You need people who look like us to sit across the desk to make the loans to Joe Public."

One executive recruiter said there's no question most banks he works with are interested in interviewing minority candidates for management positions.

"Frequently clients will emphasize that they are particularly interested in seeing a slate of candidates that includes women and minorities," said Kevin M. Connelly, a director at Spencer Stuart in Chicago. "It's part of a much broader trend of diversity in the workplace. It's plain old good business."

The federal government is stepping up efforts to target the financial services industry for employment discrimination. Just last month the Labor Department asked an administrative law judge to bar NationsBank from serving as a government contractor because of alleged discriminatory hiring practices four years ago. Ironically the Urban Bankers named the Charlotte, N.C., company its "corporate member of the year" for its minority hiring practices.

The percentage of minority employees at banks has risen slightly in the past five years, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. As total bank employment went from 1.2 million in 1991 to less than 1.1 million in 1996, the percentage of minority employees rose from 24.1%, to 25.9%. Compared with other industries, banks have been average or slightly above average in the percentage of minorities hired, said Patricia Boerger, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. u

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