The term "labor shortage" has become almost synonymous with full employment and prosperity in Washington's booming suburbs. Unemployment in some areas of the region is less than half the national average of 7 percent, and local labor market experts are projecting a jobless rate of 3 percent or less for the year.
It is becoming increasingly apparent, nevertheless, that metropolitan Washington's robust service economy has a soft underbelly, in the form of thousands of unfilled entry-level and blue-collar jobs.
More than 22 million square feet of offices will be built in the suburbs over the next year, creating a big demand for construction workers. Builders reportedly can't find enough construction workers locally, however, and have been forced to recruit help from areas located 50 miles or more from metropolitan Washington.
The commercial building boom and an influx of new businesses are providing the impetus for the construction of more hotels in the suburbs, but hoteliers are having difficulty filling nonmanagement jobs.
Meanwhile, help-wanted signs prominently displayed in the windows of fast-food restaurants are no longer rare sights.
Now comes word that banks in Washington's suburbs can't find enough tellers to handle increasingly larger customer volume.
The American Banker reported in a recent edition that as many as 1,000 teller positions in the area are unfilled. Several bank personnel directors say it has been three years since teller positions were fully staffed at their institutions, the financial services publication reported.
A random survey by the paper indicates that the teller shortage reported by bankers here "does not seem to be a problem in other parts of the country," including the District.
"We're obviously short on tellers, and that has always been a problem for the industry," said Richard A. Jennison, assistant vice president at Citizens Bancorp, the holding company for Citizens Bank of Maryland. "It's harder to get people to work in teller positions. The pay is good, but it's not great."
Understandably, part of the turnover can be attributed to the relatively low pay in an entry-level job. Tellers in this area are paid between $10,000 and $11,000 a year, depending upon the level of their experience.
Many persons employed as tellers stay in the position just long enough to gain work experience and move on to other jobs outside the banking industry. But part of the turnover also can be attributed to career advancement opportunities within a bank.
Some suburban institutions are trying several novel approaches in an attempt to retain tellers and increase the degree of stability in the position. Citizens Bank, for example, has developed an incentive program in which tellers are given salary bonuses or some other type of award for persuading customers to buy additional bank services and products. A teller as salesperson, for example, would be rewarded for persuading a customer to invest in a certificate of deposit.
Banks seem unable, nevertheless, to solve the basic problem, which is finding enough people to go to work for $10,000 a year. The beginning salary for a cashier at a checkout stand in a local supermarket, at $5 an hour, is about the same, but the hourly rate goes to $9 after two years.
To be sure, bank teller jobs aren't very attractive in terms of salary when compared with the average income in affluent suburban communities. As salary levels get lower, job selection becomes more critical, says Wesley Caison, area manager for the Virginia Employment Commission. Moreover, says Caison, high transportation costs means the jobs are not worthwhile for some people who must travel long distances for relatively low salaries.
Meanwhile, the success of a training program in the District not only proves that large numbers of people want work as tellers, but also indicates that similar programs could help suburban banks fill their needs for tellers. The bank-teller training program began last year as a project to provide employment opportunities for economically disadvantaged D.C. residents. The program is sponsored jointly by the D.C. Bankers Association, the D.C. Private Industry Council and the United Planning Organization, in cooperation with the D.C. Department of Employment Services.
Participants in the program (trainees must be high school graduates, 18 or older) receive a weekly allowance to defray the costs of lunch and transportation. Free child care also is provided.
At the end of four weeks of intensive training in a curriculum developed by the D.C. Bankers Association, graduates of the program are placed in full-time positions at District banks.
A similar program or some form of collaboration with the DCBA might work for suburban banks. If not, the labor shortage may force banks to replace human tellers with rows of automatic teller machines.