Where will the top bank executives of tomorrow come from? Probably not from the nation's best business schools.
These days, commercial banking barely rates a blip on the radar screens of top MBAs.
"Banking is so boring and stiff, and it just doesn't pay," said Tammy L. Benton, who in May received her master of business administration from the University of Texas.
A former assistant vice president at NationsBank in Dallas, Ms. Benton, 28, spurned her pre-MBA banking career for a job as a financial analyst at a Hewlett Packard plant outside Sacramento.
She is just one of many recent business school graduates who have looked askance at a career in banking.
According to a study conducted by Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, only 1% of 584 MBA respondents at 11 top business programs had accepted jobs in commercial banking. More than a quarter took jobs with management consulting firms, the single most popular job choice. Investment banking, the second most popular job, drew 12%, followed by positions in the consumer products industry, at 11%.
Such numbers bode poorly for the industry's future.
"Twenty years from now, is the leadership in banking going to be up to snuff with other industries if banks aren't getting the people they need now?" asked Frank C. Han, 32, a Stanford University MBA who is now a vice president for interactive banking at Unionbancal Corp. in Los Angeles. "I have classmates who are working at Intuit and Microsoft, but none at banks."
Ask MBAs from at leading schools about a career in commercial banking and you're likely to hear gripes about uncompetitive salaries, limited job variety, and stodgy corporate cultures.
And the shaky job security resulting from consolidation hasn't escaped students emerging from business schools - especially those with firsthand experience.
"Dime had 3,800 employees the day I joined in 1988, and that had fallen to 1,900 the day I left in 1995," said Surinder Singh, 29, who is pursuing an MBA at Columbia University so he can land a job as a trader. Of banking, he said, "I'd only go back as a fall-back."
For most students at top schools, commercial banking is decidedly a second-class career choice.
"A traditional bank has a heck of a time getting a person at Harvard Business School going to an interview, much less accepting an offer," said John P. Kotter, a Harvard professor.
He said top business students view commercial banks as hopelessly bureaucratic and reluctant to dole out much responsibility to employees until they're about 50. "That has no appeal to anyone who has got any market value these days," Prof. Kotter said.
Indeed, the Fuqua study found that responsibility and long-term career opportunities were the most important factors for MBAs deciding which job to take. Company culture ranked third among such factors.
First-year compensation rated eighth among the 17 factors offered in the survey. Observers said MBA students, wherever they land jobs, are virtually guaranteed a respectable wage.
Commercial banks don't gain any advantage with salaries. Though starting income for the MBAs in the Fuqua study ranged from $40,000 to $100,000, only the most prestigious banks offer freshly minted students more than $50,000.
"In the banking arena, we're very competitive," said Kenneth L. Fleming, a manager for recruiting at Wachovia Corp., based in Winston-Salem, N.C. "The only problem is that we're competing with other industries for these people."
Many banks have focused on recruiting undergraduates or students at lesser-known MBA programs. Buffalo-based Marine Midland Bank tried in vain to woo New York University MBAs.
"They want $50,000, and we can't pay that," said Kathryn A. Hatem, a Marine Midland human resources vice president.
A handful of the nation's leading bank companies - Citicorp, J.P. Morgan & Co., Chase Manhattan Corp., and NationsBank Corp. - claim their share of top-flight MBA graduates, they offer salaries, prestige, or high-powered jobs that compare favorably to investment banks and management consulting firms.
NationsBank, for instance, hired almost 60 MBAs last year to fill positions in its expanding capital markets and global finance operations. Part of NationsBank's appeal over the Wall Street investment banking powerhouses: the chance to get in on the ground floor of a growing business, and a location away from the frenzied pace of New York City.
"We offer competitive compensation, balance in one's life, and homeownership versus a five-story walkup," said David H. Ferguson, senior vice president and manager of global finance recruiting at NationsBank.
But most banks aren't adapting quickly enough to suit MBA students who years ago would have become bankers.
Traditional early-career banking jobs, such as lending officer or relationship manager, repel most top MBAs who shun the mundane for the complex.
"Commercial banking has made a shift to relationship kind of work and that is perceived by the students as sales," an area that most top students avoid, said Karen O. Dowd, a consultant specializing in student recruiting at Brecker & Merryman Inc., New York.
A decade ago, more than one-third of MBA students might have gone into traditional commercial banking, she said. These days, students are turning to other industries for jobs that give them access to top-level executives and a role in strategic business decisions earlier in their careers.
Most MBA students aren't willing to spend much time in the trenches paying dues, several business school placement directors said. Today's MBA grads are older, have more work experience, and are considerably less patient than their counterparts of 15 or 20 years ago.
Jon M. Mudder, 36, is emblematic of this trend. A former commercial loan officer with First Interstate Bank in Phoenix, Mr. Mudder enrolled at Columbia University's graduate business school so he could turn himself into an investment banker.
Although he's giving up on commercial banking, he already feels some nostalgia for a profession that gave him the chance to help small businesses with their credit needs.
"Commercial banks need to articulate why they're a great place to work, because they are," he said.
Some banks seem to be getting the message and are playing on their particular strengths in attracting top students.
Steven D. Crandall, senior vice president for human resources at Old Kent Bank in Grand Rapids, Mich., said his bank has altered its recruiting and training to attract "top of the line people."
Last month, Sharon M. Mason, 31, joined the $16 billion-asset bank after graduating with an MBA from University of Notre Dame. She had never considered banking as an option, but Old Kent identified her as a strategically important hire and pursued her relentlessly.
"They put me on their interview schedule, and I kind of laughed, actually," Ms. Mason said. "What in the world could they possibly want with me?"
Ms. Mason, who had worked for several leading national department stores, had just the kind of retail marketing experience many banks are looking to tap.
Eventually she declined much more lucrative offers from consulting firms for a fast-track training program at Old Kent.
The bank enticed her with regular calls from top executives - including several calls from the company president - and the promise of a stable home life. But the icing on the cake was a perk that no management consultant firm can give: favorable mortgage terms.
"Who else will give you a mortgage when you're just out of grad school," Ms. Mason asked. "Banking has that."