Schools are open again, much to the delight of every parent with a teenager who has been hanging around all summer.

It should also be "back to school" time for community banks. A bank whose staff is learning and growing is generally happier and more effective than one where 40 years' experience means one year's experience 40 times.

What are some ways in which continuing education can play a role in your organization?

First, we have bankers' schools, notably the American Institute of Banking. This organization and similar schools sponsored by state bankers associations take pains to ensure that the students hear useful ideas and procedures, taught by people who want to teach and who are not just in it for a few extra dollars.

If any programs are within reasonable distance of the bank, management should encourage employees to enroll and devote one or two nights a week to courses relevant both to their present jobs and to possible advancement.

What should this encouragement entail?

Top management should show that it feels these courses are important to the bank by giving the students, and especially those just graduating, publicity inside and outside the bank and, if possible, some financial reward like a bonus or raise when a course or program is completed successfully.

It goes without saying that the bank should pick up the tab for registration costs.

Such recognition is vital for making the employee feel that it was worth the effort to go away to school for a week or two several years in a row - and to complete heavy homework loads the rest of those years.

A second area that should be examined is encouraging employees through tuition reimbursement to take courses at area colleges. Again, this gives the employee a feeling of growth that filters down to effectiveness in the bank.

A question that always arises is whether the bank should pay for "self- improvement" courses like English and history or just for banking-related courses like accounting and finance.

My feeling is that supporting any education is worthwhile because it helps the employee grow in self-esteem, ability to represent the bank, and potential to move up in the organization. Many would disagree. But it is certainly something the bank should consider.

And in this vein, we must remember that, in the business world where management's pyramid structure makes it impossible for all ambitious people to reach the top, alternative goals like gaining a bachelor's degree can help keep good people happy in their jobs when otherwise they might move on and deprive the bank of their talents.

But a bank can do a lot internally to instill a sense of growth and education even without sending employees to school formally.

Some ideas include:

*Setting up internal seminars so that all employees can learn more about the department being discussed that week.

*Running training programs with outside consultants on topics like telephone skills and effective communication or even "being a more effective teller" and "selling the bank to customers."

*Using the talents of local educational institutions to run programs on topics like "changes in technology" or "our political system and the media." It is amazing what talent is available in the local community college or university.

As an added incentive, the bank can find good part-time workers through these school contacts. It can get the inside track through teachers hired for the internal programs on hiring people with the most potential.

Finally, I think every community bank should have a job posting program so employees will know they are welcome to apply for posts that would mean advancement.

This breeds a culture of improvement and change that is far superior to the all-too-frequent motto: "Never do something the first time, and if you have to do it a first time, don't do it now."

A passage in Norman Mailer's novel "The Naked and the Dead" makes a relevant point: "It is a fact of life, so cruel yet so just, that either we grow or it costs more and more to stand still."

In this spirit, taking advantage of September's "back to school" atmosphere is not merely an option but a necessity.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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