Summa cum lucky break?

Banks with college recruiting programs say the class of 2009 could be their "most likely to succeed," since the tight job market has delivered some of the best prospects in years.

Companies like BB&T Corp., MB Financial Inc. and M&T Bank Corp. say interest in their apprentice programs for recent college grads has increased markedly. Two of them — BB&T and MB — hired fewer students this year because of the downturn. Still, the upswing in applications enabled them to field an unusually promising crop of new hires.

"We are ecstatic with the two classes we brought in this year — extremely high quality," said Will Sutton, executive vice president and head of employee training at BB&T. "This program is immensely important to BB&T. It has produced all but one of our executive team members."

Sutton and executives at M&T and MB said they remain committed to filling their ranks with fresh young talent, despite the toll the recession is taking on profits. Graduates of their mentoring programs — which typically last a year or two — tend to stick around longer than other hires and to rise through the ranks. Kelly King, who became BB&T's chief executive officer in January, started his career at the Winston-Salem, N.C., company in the 1970s as a recruit of the management development program. Rene Jones, the chief financial officer of M&T Bank, joined the Buffalo company in the early 1990s under its tutelage course for graduate students.

Orientation for the new hires started last week at all three companies. Though the length and content of their programs vary, the underlying goal is the same: to groom future leaders by giving them hands-on guidance in operations, retail banking, commercial lending and other areas.

The credit crisis has tarnished the banking industry's reputation with the public, but these companies said they didn't see any effects while recruiting at local colleges in their regions.

M&T received 623 applicants for its yearlong mentorship program, about 36% more than last year, according to Michael Zabel, an M&T spokesman. It hired 40 grads from top schools like Princeton University, Yale University, and the University of Notre Dame. The group spent last week meeting with top executives at different branches of the bank. Later, they will go to work in their selected fields while teaming up to tackle a long-term project. Last year Zabel worked with a team of apprentices that overhauled the home page of M&T's intranet site.

Continuing the program through the recession is a sign of strength, Zabel said.

"M&T is not laying off and it's still hiring," he said. The company did let go of 521 back-office workers go at a recently acquired subsidiary, Provident Bankshares Corp., but it has not fired any M&T people, Zabel said.

The recent hires at MB Financial are on a similar track, though their program lasts two years, said Sue Griffith, the Chicago company's head of human resources.

MB received twice as many applicants this year, though it could only hire 10 people rather than its usual 15 to 20. Griffith said she is still getting a steady stream of resumes even though all slots are filled through 2009. Applications may have gone up because apprentice programs are becoming scarce as banks consolidate or stop hiring, she said. For instance, MB once had to compete for new grads with LaSalle Bank, which Bank of America Corp. purchased in late 2007.

"A lot of the kids that we interviewed — especially the ones that started this July," told MB Financial, " 'You're one of the few banks that is still running a program like this,' " Griffith said. "I think this is a great way to get good talent."

Sutton agreed. BB&T hired 34 apprentices this year, down from about 60 last year. It gives each candidate a score based on their grades, interviews and extracurricular activities. This year's group score was "up significantly" from last year's class, he said, declining to say by exactly how much.

BB&T never considered dropping its program, even as it has handed out pink slips to cut costs in other areas.

"It's not something you should be taking a year or two off," Sutton said. "It does cost us some money — certainly there is some expense. It is one we're willing to make. It's an investment in our mind."

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