The last two times John Ketner Jr. started banks, he never worried about finding affordable help.

But when he began hiring for his newest community bank, in Southern Pines, N.C., he searched in vain for experienced tellers willing to move from a large bank. By the time Centennial Bank opened in February, he was offering $25 an hour, including benefits - well above last year's national average of $20 an hour for head tellers and $17 for regular tellers.

"We have to hire experienced tellers because we do not have tellers to train them, so we ended up hiring them away from larger banks at a greater cost than I expected," said Mr. Ketner, the bank's president.

Filling teller positions is a problem at banks of all sizes, but it seems community banks are having a particularly hard time getting responses to their classifieds.

Bradley L. Barrett, executive vice president of the Tennessee Bankers Association, attributes the shortage to consolidation. Customers dissatisfied with service at the larger, merged banks continue to flee to community banks, "and with growth there is a need for additional service and more personnel," he said.

Mergers also lead to the creation of new banks in the affected communities, and these too are competing for tellers at a time when unemployment is at historic lows.

Thad Woodard, president of the North Carolina Bankers Association, noted that community banks lack the extensive training programs available at larger ones and therefore prefer to hire experienced tellers.

However, John A. Doukas, a senior consultant at Professional Bank Services Inc., said many community banks end up hiring tellers with no experience while still promising benefits - such as flexible hours and hiring bonuses - above and beyond most entry-level positions.

Banks of all sizes also encourage their customers to use ATMs, Internet banking, and direct deposit to help minimize the tellers' workload, Mr. Doukas said. If banks do not provide such incentives, he said, they risk losing tellers to other entry-level jobs with less responsibility and stress.

"The pay is comparable for other entry-level positions," he said. "But it's not comparable to the responsibilities expected from tellers, such as handling cash, being accurate, and knowing the customers."

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