Gone from the cutting-edge bank: Tellers

By Abha Bhattarai April 11 at 10:39 AM 

When Wells Fargo opened its first high-tech branch three years ago in the District’s NoMa neighborhood, it did away with desks and replaced traditional counters with large touch-screen ATMs.

Also gone from its new location: tellers.

Instead, the 1,000-square-foot branch has a handful of tablet-toting employees to help customers navigate technology to deposit checks, apply for loans or open savings accounts.

It’s a model that’s being replicated throughout the region, leading to a shift in the number — and types — of employees at area banks.

The number of banks tellers in the region has dropped by nearly half in the past 10 years, from 10,980 in 2005 to 5,990 in 2015, outpacing a 17 percent drop nationally, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Overall employment in the Washington region rose 7.3 percent in the same period.

Median annual pay for tellers, meanwhile, has risen 35 percent, to $32,250 as tellers are increasingly required to be well-versed in technology.

A recent report by Citigroup estimates that an additional 30 percent of U.S. banking jobs could be eliminated by 2025 as financial firms shutter branches and invest more heavily in technology.

“There has been a tremendous change in the mix of bank employees, with a much greater reliance on tech workers,” said Bert Ely, a banking industry consultant in Alexandria. “Banks are cutting a lot of so-called back-office processing jobs — and that is something that will continue.”

Experts say the trend is likely to be magnified in the Washington area, where an influx of young professionals and tech-savvy customers has ushered in a number of high-tech branches that require few employees. Recent bank mergers and branch closings also have contributed to shrinkage in the pool of jobs.

“Traffic in branches is down dramatically,” said Ronald D. Paul, chief executive of Bethesda-based Eagle Bancorp, the region’s largest community bank. “You just don’t need that many branches anymore.”

As a result, the company has closed less-frequented branches and moving others into smaller spaces. It also is adding more high-tech workers, including computer programmers and commercial deposit officers who can help trouble­shoot technology, to its ranks.

The number of bank branches in the Washington region has been steadily dropping in recent years. Last year, the area had 1,697 branches, 84 fewer than it did in 2010, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

“It was the ATM that started this spiral 25 or 30 years ago,” said Stephen Fuller, an economist and senior adviser at George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “We’ve just about replaced the need to have people in those spaces.”

Indeed, nearly four in 10 Americans have not visited a bank or credit union branch in at least six months, according to a survey by Bankrate.com, a New York-based personal-finance information company. When customers do stop by the bank, it is generally for financial consultations or to open accounts, not routine transactions, the survey found.

“The bank as it is today is becoming more interactional and less transactional,” said David M. Glaser, a vice president at District-based National Capital Bank. “When people come in, it’s with a more complex question or to open an account. If they just need to deposit a check — well, they can do that at the ATM.”

At PNC, which has done away with tellers at a number of area branches, new hires are as likely to come from a tech company as from another bank, said Todd Barnhart, head of branch distribution.

“The way we think about recruiting has changed pretty significantly,” he said. “Five or 10 years ago, we might have looked at employees at the bank down the street.

“Today we’re looking at people from the Apple store, AT&T store and other tech-centric retailers.”

The company’s “innovation branch” in Tenleytown, for example, has six employees, all of whom are trained to help customers with everything from deposits to loan applications.

“We’re not building branches with teller lines but with places where customers and employees can have meaningful conversations,” he said.

Instead of having separate tellers and mortgage officers, “it’s one job, one person,” Barnhart said, adding that roughly half of the bank’s deposits now come through its mobile app or ATMs.

“What people are looking for in a bank is much different than it used to be,” he said. “Employees need to be prepared to answer things like, ‘How do I do this on my mobile phone?’ or ‘How do I do this online?’ ”

Among Americans with smartphones, 52 percent used mobile banking in 2014, according to a Federal Reserve survey. The vast majority of users — 94 percent — use mobile apps to check their account balances, while 61 percent use them to transfer money between their accounts and 51 percent to deposit checks. The median frequency of use was five times a month.

Meanwhile, national bank employment has been falling an average of 2 percent a year since the recession, according to the Citigroup report.

“The future of branches in banking is about focusing on advisory and consultation rather than transactions,” according to the Citigroup report. “Branches and associated staff costs make up about 65 percent of the total retail cost base of a larger bank and a lot of these costs can be removed via automation.”

Banks in Scandinavia, Finland and the Netherlands have cut branches by roughly 50 percent from recent peak levels, according to the Citigroup report. If U.S. banks were to take similar measures, they could save as much as $175 billion in costs and add 39 percent to their pretax profit, the report said.

“This is all part of a technological evolution that is taking place in banking,” Ely said. “In this low-interest-rate environment, banks are under great pressure to cut costs, and one of the easiest ways to do that, among other things, is through branch closures and consolidations.”


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