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Banks turn to college campuses for loan officer recruits

Young recruits attended a training class in commercial lending, led by Dima Berdiev (right), at Citizens Bank in downtown Boston.

Jim Davis/Globe Staff

Young recruits attended a training class in commercial lending, led by Dima Berdiev (right), at Citizens Bank in downtown Boston.

A steadily improving economy and an acute shortage of experienced commercial loan officers are sending area bankers back to unfamiliar territory: college campuses.

As baby-boomer lending officers start to retire, local bank executives are scrambling to fill hundreds of positions critical to reviewing, approving, or rejecting loans for all sorts of businesses, from manufacturers seeking to buy the latest equipment to aspiring restaurateurs opening new eateries.

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The competition for loan officers has become so fierce among both large and small banks that they’re raiding each other for top talent, offering six-figure salaries for veteran lenders with key business contacts across eastern New England.

“It’s an unbelievable shortage,” said Mike Crawford, executive vice president and chief operating officer at Commerce Bank & Trust in Worcester. “It’s tremendously competitive out there. And it’s frustrating.”

So frustrating that for the first time in decades, many local banks are aggressively recruiting on local college campuses, trying to lure young talent to a profession that often gets overshadowed by more glamorous-sounding jobs in investment banking, private equity, and other Wall Street-type firms.

One of those prospects is Keely Mohin, 22, who heard about possible job openings at RBS Citizens, the commercial-banking arm of Citizens Financial Group, through the career services office at Providence College.

Along with 11 other recent college grads, Mohin, who graduated in May with a major in English and a minor in business administration, is now enrolled in a yearlong training program at RBS Citizens to become a credit analyst, the first step toward becoming a commercial loan officer.

The recently established RBS training program includes three months of classroom instruction on credit analysis, bank products and services, and other key commercial banking topics. Another 2½ months are spent learning how to write credit analyses for senior lenders to use when assessing loan applications. The rest of the training period is spent rotating through various jobs within the commercial banking unit and meeting with key bank executives.

Mohin, who began training in June in Boston, said she’s almost overwhelmed with what she’s learning about a profession she barely heard of in college.

“Most people do ask me, ‘What is commercial banking?’” said Mohin. “When they think of banking, they think of investment banking.”

Part of the rush to find and hire new commercial-banking talent is driven by the steadily improving economy and recovery of the banking industry, which was hard hit in the financial crisis of 2008.

Loans by US deposit banks hit $7.8 trillion by the end of March, up from $7.4 trillion just prior to the onset of the recession in late 2007, according to data from the Federal Deposit and Insurance Corporation. Nearly all that growth has come from commercial banking.

Commercial banking is divided into two subsectors, commercial real estate lending, which involves financing the acquisitions of properties, and commercial and industrial loans, which help companies get started, expand, and buy equipment. Commercial real estate lending has increased by about $100 billion and commercial and industrial lending by $300 billion over pre-recession levels, according to FDIC data.

That helps explain why banks, both large institutions and community banks, are beefing up commercial-lending operations. Last week, for instance, RBS Citizens said it was expanding its lending business nationally to focus on sectors such as technology and health care.

But to pursue this lucrative line of business, banks need employees familiar with the intricacies of dealing with business owners, assessing risks, structuring loan deals, and having the business contacts to keep drumming up new commercial-loan business. But they are confronting a shortage of experienced lenders, estimated in the hundreds in New England and thousands nationally, industry experts say.

Banks can partly blame themselves for the dilemma. After the commercial real estate bust of the early 1990s and the failures of dozens of banks across New England, thousands of unemployed workers, including commercial loan officers, flooded the job market.

Consequently, many banks cut back on training new commercial lenders. The wave of bank mergers in the 1990s and early last decade — and the loss of thousands more banking jobs — only added to the labor surplus.

Suzanne Moot, a banking consultant at M&M Associates in Milton, remembers when Shawmut Bank, BayBank, First National Bank of Boston, and Fleet Bank all hired and trained scores of young bankers each year. “But they’re all gone now due to mergers,” she said. “There was a long stretch of time when there was an oversupply of lenders.”

But now, those who were trained as commercial lenders in the 1970s and 1980s are retiring, leaving banks with open positions and few people to fill them. Charles Withee, president of the Provident Bank in Amesbury, said his company recently hired and trained a credit analyst right out of Bentley University, its first such hire in years. “

“We’re trying to build up our bench,” said Withee, adding that his bank plans to continue recruiting college grads.

The Massachusetts Bankers Association, the industry trade group, recently established a summer internship program designed to introduce college students to potential careers in commercial banking. Dave Floreen, a senior vice president at the bankers association, said he’s actively recruiting students at Bentley in Waltham, Bryant University in Smithfield, R.I., and the University of Massachusetts-Amherst for internships at community banks in the area.

Other bankers are also showing up on campus — and they’re not pushing checking accounts and credit cards. Jerry Sargent, the Massachusetts president of Citizens Bank and RBS Citizens, said his recruiters are visiting schools such as Bentley, Boston College, Providence College, and Babson College in Wellesley.

Candice Serafino, interim director of career services at UMass-Amherst, said she’s seeing an increasing number of recruiters at campus career fairs looking for students interested in commercial lending. “It’s definitely picking up,” she said.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries of the loan officer shortage are college grads, who can make about $50,000 to $60,000 a year as credit analysts and more than $100,000 as they move up the banking ladder.

“I honestly didn’t know much about commercial lending” while in college, said Carolina Ozuna, who graduated last year from Bentley University and started training at RBS Citizens. Today, she’s a credit analyst with RBS Citizens.“The training was great and intense,” said Ozuna, 21. “It’s definitely been the right career move for me. I’ve gained so many skills. It was unexpected.”

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.
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