Young Professionals at a Premium in Rural Areas

by Luke Jones  on Monday, Sep. 24, 2012 12:00 am  

With national unemployment at 8.3 percent and the statewide rate at 7.3 percent, it's easy to believe that there must be thousands of young professionals desperate for jobs all across the state. Not quite.

Rural banks, for example, are struggling to fill positions. Rural hospitals and schools have faced similar issues.

"You'd think, as an employer, it would be easy to find people," said Marnie Oldner, CEO of the 31-employee Ozark Heritage Bank in Mountain View (Stone County). "That's not necessarily true here in Arkansas."

Oldner herself moved from an urban area toward Mountain View. She still has a house in Little Rock, though.

It turns out that the skilled young adults of Arkansas aren't lining up for careers in places like Mountain View or Eudora or Crossett or Helena.

Dwight Rutland, CEO of the 14-employee Forrest City Bank, described talent recruitment as an "extreme challenge."

Rutland, a Mississippi native, called Arkansas in general and Forrest City in particular "a good place to live." But, he continued, "generally speaking, I think most young people would think we're living in the Dark Ages. ... In our area, most people, especially young folks, are trying to leave the Delta."

Many of the corporate executives who do work in the area, Rutland said, commute 40 to 50 miles from home.

"They come from New York, where they drive 60 miles from one side of town to another," he said. "That's nothing for them. They just have a certain standard of living. They're looking for a certain quality of life that they can't necessarily find in a rural, Delta environment."

Rutland said his area wasn't too affected by the recent ups and downs of the national economy "because in the Delta, we've been on the bottom for so long, most of our people know how to deal with this, to pay their bills and survive."

Rutland's most recent hire came from Palestine (St. Francis County).

"She knew the area," he said. "She has family here. She didn't want to go off to the big city - Memphis, Jonesboro, places like that."

She already wanted to be there, he said.

"You don't find many of those people out here," he said. "It's the same for attorneys. You don't find young attorneys that want to relocate to a smaller Delta home. They want to go to bigger firms and bigger communities."

His best leverage, he said, comes from the facelessness of the urban banks.

"Those bigger banks seem to be cutting back on hours and things," he said. "The employee feels like he's out of touch with reality."

Recruiting Challenges

Ozark Heritage Bank's charter was relocated from Altheimer in Jefferson County, and the Altheimer branch was relocated in July to the relatively prosperous Pine Bluff suburb of White Hall. But even there, hiring has been tricky, Oldner said.

"Surprisingly, we were going to add some folks in our White Hall location, and we thought that job market would be richer, but we had similar difficulties there," she said.

Oldner has tried to spread her job openings through word of mouth via advisory boards, the Arkansas State Bank Department and the Arkansas Bankers Association. She's also advertised in newspapers and on People respond, Oldner said, but too often they back off when they hear about the job's location.

"There are lots of people who do enjoy the rural market," she said. "There are people who are attracted to this. But, obviously, urban areas have more people, so it does become hard."

A few that she's dealt with have cited the county's school systems and the quick commute as rural perks. But then comes the problem of payment: One would think, Oldner said, that the lower cost of living in smaller markets means one could hire at similarly discounted salaries. Not so.

"In reality, you've got to pay up," she said.

For some banks, this isn't an option.

"We can't find employees who can accept wages in the southeast Arkansas economy," was the blunt comment of Howard Beaty Jr., CEO of First State Bank in Crossett.

When Beaty joined First State Bank in 2003, he said it employed around 25.

Beaty moved from northern Louisiana, where he was a "known commodity."

"That was an opportunity for me to move out of my community where I was a known talent and step out on my own, take on more responsibility," he said.

Since then, the bank is down to 14 employees. Many retired or left for higher-paying jobs at the local Georgia-Pacific plant, Beaty said. Because of the difficulty of hiring new workers, and because of a changing banking industry, the remaining employees have been cross-trained in various areas.

"We're doing more with less," he said. "With new demands, compliance, regulations, decreases in income, the attack from the popular media on banking and fees we pass on to consumers - we're having to do more with less on the talent side."

Change in Tactics

Rural banks are just looking in the wrong places, Beaty said. Sifting through college graduates in the standard job market just won't cut it in the future. Banks won't be able to find enough talent to fill every slot.

"I think this is across the board," he said. "We as employers expect someone to walk in on Day One and have the skill set to hit the ground running and perform their job duties with little training. That's something we're going to have to change."

First, banks need to look at their own workforce, Beaty said.

"I think most bankers would be surprised in what their existing employees can do," he said. "Maybe it's an industry belief that current employees, even though they have exceptional skills, can't step up to the plate. I've found that to be completely the opposite. They already know the organizational structure, so they won't hit the roadblocks that new employees would."

Second, banks will increasingly need to work with local schools, Beaty said, and in his and other rural areas, that often means two-year and vocational colleges.

Rutland in Forrest City said the city was "blessed" to have East Arkansas Community College and Crowley's Ridge Technical Institute nearby.

"Getting good people who want work, with the ability, is an issue," he said. "I think our junior college here is doing a good job, our vo-tech is doing a good job, of getting those people who have the desire to re-educate themselves, to learn a trade, to go onto other things."

Beaty said banks should foster relationships with community colleges, which already often partner with local industry for recruiting purposes.

"Bankers need to work with those schools, even for our basic employees at the teller line, so once those skilled workers have that training, we have access to it," he said.



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