How to connect with talent in smaller markets

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Most community banks serving rural communities and small towns understand that recruiting talent, especially young people, is important. However, given low unemployment and limited recruiting budgets, finding the right people can be easier said than done. Here’s how several community banks are finding superstar hires outside of the big cities.

By William Atkinson


With record-low unemployment, businesses of all kinds are having to think more strategically about how they recruit and find the talent that they need.

In rural communities and small towns across the U.S., recruiting rising stars can be an even more complicated prospect. In order to clear hiring hurdles—including that their next hire might not live locally—community banks are finding applicants by using tactics like leveraging employee and online networks.

Gorham Savings Bank is located in Gorham, Maine, a city of about 17,000 people just outside of Portland. Along with the standard challenges of finding good people in a small town, it has to compete with nonbanks for talent.

“We are always competing for applicants, not just with other banks, but with employers of all types,” says Diana Wheelock, senior vice president and director of human resources and organizational development at the $1.2 billion-asset community bank. “In the current tight labor market, of course there are fewer applicants seeking new opportunities.”

To get ahead of other businesses, Gorham Savings Bank has partially relied on referrals from its own employees, who can personally tout the benefits of working there. “We do think that by valuing our employees and providing them with support and strong opportunities for growth and advancement, we get our fair share of referrals,” Wheelock says.

By leveraging the existing networks of each employee, community banks can reach people who may not have looked for a job posting or even heard of the bank. At $1.7 billion-asset D.L. Evans Bank in Burley, Idaho (pop. 10,525), Ben Nelson, senior vice president of residential mortgage lending, says employee connections, which he describes as “known people networks,” are even more important for specialized positions that fill a niche at the bank.

“We all know someone who knows someone,” he says. “Using our own personal networks has been helpful in finding and attracting more potential job applicants.”

Expand to online networks

The low unemployment rate has made it particularly difficult for $450 million-asset Community Bank in Zanesville, Ohio, to recruit entry-level employees who may prioritize a higher starting wage at a larger company. Added to that is the tendency of local college students and young professionals to choose larger markets to start their careers in. Zanesville has a population of more than 25,000.

Despite these trends, the community bank has had luck with both employee referrals and online recruiting. “An online application process has been successful,” says president and CEO Eric Holsky. “Our marketing team also does a good job of highlighting the bank’s involvement with our customers and the communities we serve, which helps attract potential applicants.”

At D.L. Evans Bank, Nelson says he’s always amazed at the number of applicants the community bank gets through online job posts. But while this method brings in applications, he adds, it doesn’t always produce well-qualified candidates.

“The quantity of job applicants hasn’t been an issue, but the quality of applicants has been a challenge,” he says. “I have found that grassroots efforts to attracting job applicants have been very successful.”

The Heritage Bank, a division of Heritage Southeast Bank, is based in Hinesville, Ga., a city of just under 25,000 outside of Atlanta. There, online recruiting websites have complemented employee referrals in attracting potential hires.

Deal says Heritage Bank has had to change its strategy with job posts and how it sells itself to applicants online and on social media. Previously, the community bank’s job posts had a straightforward “join our team” message. Its new approach will be to creatively show the benefits of joining the community bank, featuring lifestyle-oriented messages and images. The bank’s benefits package is also a selling point.

“We also love sharing success stories of individual team members,” Deal says. “We introduce the team member and share how that person started and the career path that he or she has taken. It gives the applicant a very practical idea of what opportunities may be available.”

Deal adds: “Our goal is to show that working with our bank can offer more than just a job.” Like Heritage Bank, many community banks find themselves touting the tangible and intangible benefits of working at a close-knit, human-centered organization in order to recruit. For example, D.L. Evans Bank has leveraged the value of being a family-owned community bank.

“I like to promote the fact that they can have a career here and be a part of building something really special,” Nelson says. “I explain that they will get to know the bank’s executive team and owners, and, conversely, they will get to know the employees. It is a wonderful thing to be a member of a bank family, rather than just an employee or a number.”

“It is a wonderful thing to be a member of a bank family, rather than just an employee or a number.”
—Ben Nelson, D.L. Evans Bank

Sharing the story of community banking

For the Community Bank, the pitch to potential hires involves its mix of Zanesville’s lower cost of living with access to big-city amenities—it’s close to Columbus, Ohio—and its emphasis on serving its community. A good benefits package doesn’t hurt, either.

“Our employees are truly involved in making the community a better place to live and work,” Holsky says. “Being invested in our communities is also more than just a tag line. We have improved our benefits package and believe that it is competitive in the marketplace.”

Sharing these benefits is also key to Community Bank’s recruiting strategy. Like job posting websites, social media can be a great way of showcasing employee success stories and other ways it pays to work at a community bank. Holsky says the bank’s use of social media sets it apart from other employers and can provide skeptics proof of its good culture.

“[Social media] is an effective way to share our activities in the community, and we also spotlight our small business customers and assist them in telling their stories,” he says. “Seeing is believing, and our social media followers are able to follow our activities and get a feel for our culture.”

In this way, a bank’s reputation can speak for itself. And when a social media follower or community member is looking for work, they’ll naturally look to the bank. Wheelock says Gorham Savings Bank’s brand speaks volumes. “So, if someone is entertaining the idea of breaking into the financial services industry,” she says, “we are on their radar as an employer of choice.”

Illustration of a chair

4 ways to find the talent you need

When it comes to getting the word out to potential applicants, here are a few strategies that community banks are trying.

  1. Encourage referrals. Encourage your employees to keep their eyes and ears open for high-quality people in their own network—friends, neighbors, even family members—who may be interested in starting their career or forging a new path in community banking. “By reaching out to others, we have had success in finding more good-quality people,” says Ben Nelson, senior vice president of residential mortgage lending at D.L. Evans Bank in Burley, Idaho.
  2. Leverage professional connections. If your bank is looking for a particular background or skill set, encourage team members to be on alert for potential hires during the workday. “As a local bank, our employees are active and out in the community every day, making important connections and demonstrating who we are. That is the best form of talent acquisition advertising that I can think of,” says Diana Wheelock, senior vice president of director of human resources and organizational development for Gorham Savings Bank in Gorham, Maine.
  3. Recruit online. Many community banks have become or are becoming active on digital hiring platforms. Popular websites include Indeed and ZipRecruiter. “We have had great success with online recruiting sites,” says Melissa Deal, executive vice president and chief operations officer at The Heritage Bank, a division of Heritage Southeast Bank, in Hinesville, Ga.
  4. Sell your community bank via social media. Most community banks already have a presence on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and other social media channels. While you’re marketing your community bank’s products and services to customers, be sure to show off your stellar workplace, too.

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.

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