Recently, after giving a speech to a banker group that skewed rather young, the bank's head recruiter offered me a ride to the airport. Along the way, she told me that she had paid special attention during my presentation to the reactions of their newer hires in the audience.
Her compliment made me laugh. She told me that she was happy to see that it was possible for that group to at least "look" interested in their jobs and possible futures with the bank for about an hour. When she followed with, "Okay, that may sound a little harsh," I assured her that I got her drift.
She then asked my opinion of the best place to recruit frontline personnel and beginning managers. I joked, "Well, you can find them around most universities." When her eyebrows arched, I finished with, "They’re the folks working in the local restaurants, coffee shops, and supermarkets."
That comment got her laughing loudly and apparently freed her to be even more open about her frustrations. She confessed that her management team's fixation on recruiting on college campuses and requiring college degrees for assistant manager and higher positions exasperated her.
She practically apologized for saying, "So many college kids come to us with these overblown expectations. But they seldom come to us with useful work experience or a solid work ethic."
We both acknowledged that we may have been guilty of a little stereotyping. But those impressions resonated for a reason. She told me that she was going to fight harder than ever to get her bank to give applicants' work experiences equal weight to whether or not they hold a diploma.
Over the years, I've asked scores of bank managers about the best employees they've managed. As often as not, their most productive employees were folks from non-banking backgrounds, quite often without college degrees.
Truth be told, that question is one I’ve given much thought to due to personal experience. As chance would have it, I was finishing work on an MBA when I got my first job in banking. I was able to take a graduate level banking elective at the same time I became a branch manager.
I soon learned that I would have gotten more useable information for actually working at a bank than from a course in Latin, Greek mythology, or basket weaving. But, hey, it looked good on a resume.
When I managed my first branch, my best employee was a former McDonalds’ assistant manager. She often joked that her only college was “Hamburger University.” I ended up thinking our entire branch should have enrolled. She had a work ethic and a way with customers that most of us could only aspire to.
When I would comment about how she could be in a good mood when the rest of us were burned-out, she would joke, “I get to go home before 9:00 PM, and no one has cursed me or thrown a milkshake at me today. Life is good.”
A few years later, I helped her get a branch manager position with another bank. I was not surprised when I was later told that she became the prototype they looked for in branch hires.
When I was a senior manager at another bank, my best middle manager was a young man who had worked even more odd jobs than I had growing up. Due to family responsibilities and financial considerations, he never attended college. On occasion, he would mention to me that he regretted it. He thought lacking a college education may hold him back.
Honestly, I came to believe that not having a degree became a kind of competitive advantage of his. It motivated him. He always feared that if he were being considered for a new opportunity against someone with a degree, he'd "lose the tie." He always made sure his productivity differentiated him.
It appears to have done so. He’s a SVP now with about 1,200 employees in the branch network he manages.
Recently, I've had some folks tell me that a tough job market has made it easier for them to hire degreed people for even low-level and part-time positions. My usual question to them is, "And how do folks who feel they are 'settling' for a job tend to work out for you?" Their answers tend to be mixed at best.
The future of any business is only as strong as the people it chooses to employ. When I have these discussions with bankers, I’m obviously not suggesting that college degrees are a bad thing. And degreed or not, there are aptitude levels we need to be diligent in setting and maintaining.
But I do ask them to consider whether or not their recruiting and hiring parameters may be unnecessarily eliminating folks with talents and experiences our industry can always use more of.
Dave Martin is an executive vice president and chief training consultant at NCBS, a SunTrust Banks Inc. subsidiary that offers consulting, training, design and construction services for retail banking programs. He can be reached at Dave.Martin@ncbs.com