It’s Academic!

By Monica C. Meinert

Kent Belasco is on a mission to bring more young people into banking.

The former bank CIO-turned-college professor is working to build a concentrated undergraduate commercial banking curriculum at Marquette University in Milwaukee that allows students to graduate with the skills they need to move immediately into careers as professional bankers.

It’s one industry veteran’s approach to solving a growing problem: a lack of young talent entering the banking profession. “The need is out there,” he says. “The timing is perfect, because there’s a lot of aging bankers that are looking to retire—they need succession and they need talent.”

Marquette’s commercial banking program is housed within the school’s finance department, and occupies a particular niche within the department’s other offerings. “What we’re finding is that the students don’t all want to go into investment management or portfolio management or real estate, and that there was a gap in there,” Belasco says. “Rather than having somebody come out with just a degree in finance, this afforded an opportunity to get specifically into a more mainline profession that we can move kids directly into” after graduation.

One of his main goals is to “professionalize” banking as a career track for up-and-coming generations that may be less aware of opportunities within the commercial banking industry. The hope, he says, is that students will come to see banking the same way as they would accounting or any other skilled profession, and that they’ll leave the program ready to enter the workforce.

As a former banker, he has a unique perspective that’s helped him develop the curriculum. “I’ve approached it from a management standpoint,” he says of his program. “I always thought there was a certain set of skills that all my managers should have, and we’ve tried to create those” in the various course offerings.

Students accepted into the program begin their coursework during sophomore year, going through a sequence of introductory classes in financial management and banking. As upperclassmen, they take courses in bank leadership, investment analysis, risk management and financial modeling. In addition to hitting the books, students also take part in at least two summer internships to put lessons learned in the classroom into action.

Belasco’s program is just out of the starting gate—it started in the spring of 2017 with a cohort of about 20 students, with the hope of growing by 20 to 25 students each year. Meanwhile, a thousand miles to the southwest, James Bexley oversees a program that’s been running steadily for years—a 20-year marathon push to attract students to the profession.

Like Belasco, Bexley is another former banker who made his way into academia. During the 80s and ‘90s, he served as president and CEO of several struggling banks in Texas, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, helping them weather difficult times. Eventually, he found his way to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, and began building the school’s banking program from the ground up.

Since its founding in 1997, the school has introduced a minor in banking, a bachelor’s degree program in banking and financial institutions, and most recently in 2005, an executive MBA program. Working in close partnership with bankers, regulators and the Texas Bankers Association, Bexley has helped facilitate internships for more than a thousand young men and women at the university and placed more than 700 graduates in careers in the banking industry.

“Our ‘pep talk’ is that banking is a great career, but one of the neat things about it is you’re really helping people,” he says. “You’re helping people to develop their lives, finance their businesses, finance their cars, finance their buildings. You’re really an important part of the community.”

For Lee Haggard, CEO of First National Bank of Trinity in Trinity, Texas (a small town just 20 miles north of the Sam Houston campus), Bexley’s program has been an important talent pipeline. Haggard currently employs two graduates that both received their bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Sam Houston. Bexley himself serves as a consultant for Haggard’s board, and Haggard notes that that relationship has served the bank well as needs for fresh talent arise.

Students coming out of Bexley’s program have a particular edge, he adds. “They automatically know the language [of banking]and they are able to put it all together more quickly in terms of the ‘big picture’ of the banking process. They already know how to do cash flow statements, and they understand the nuts and bolts of how a bank operates.”

While not every college or university offers a structured program offering in banking, there are a number of ways bankers can engage with their local schools to strengthen the ties between the banking and academic communities.


Get connected
The types of programs offered by colleges and universities across the country vary widely, so it’s important to know which programs nearby schools do offer in banking and finance, and then determine how best to get involved.

“The notion of encouraging more academic institutions to offer banking-specific programs or curriculum has a lot of appeal,” notes FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg. “I think interaction by the local banking groups with their local academic institutions can often be a real catalyst.”

Recognizing the importance of growing a new generation of bankers, the FDIC has been actively involved in facilitating collaborations between bankers and universities. Last year, the agency held a conference on the future of community banking which featured a panel discussion with teachers, bankers and other industry stakeholders. Looking ahead, Gruenberg says the FDIC plans to continue gathering and consolidating information on banking programs offered by colleges and universities an exploring new opportunities to connect bankers with the academic community.


Endow a chair at a local school
Another way to be involved is to endow a chair at a local school. Through a monetary gift to a college or university, bankers not only create a legacy for their institution, but also help place a stronger emphasis on banking as an academic discipline.

Such is the case at the University of Arkansas, where the Arkansas Bankers Association created a chair of banking at the university’s Walton College of Business. The association in 2004 made a $750,000 gift, which was in turn matched by the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation to create an endowment totaling $1.5 million.

That money provides the funds and resources to support the work of Timothy Yeager, a veteran academic and former employee of the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank, who currently occupies the chair. “The idea is to provide leadership, to provide service to the bankers and to provide the core education for many of the students in our state,” Yeager says of his position.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities (which include courses on banking for the commercial banking certificate that the university offers), Yeager is also a vital resource to bankers across the state, giving talks, conducting research and helping to develop training courses.


Be an expert
Depending on the school, there may be opportunities for bankers to leverage their real-world experience to support classroom learning and instruction. For instance, in Yeager’s introduction to commercial banking course, he typically selects a local community bank to serve as a case study. Students dive into the bank’s financial statements to learn the basics of risk management, capital, bank liquidity and interest rates, and Yeager invites the bank CEO in as a guest speaker.

“It gets the CEOs to really tell their stories about the particulars of the northwest Arkansas metropolitan markets,” he says.

In Wisconsin, Belasco frequently invites bankers to come in as guest lecturers or for career nights where, over pizza and sodas, bankers share stories about their day-to-day jobs and the many opportunities available in the profession. “The one thing I’ve learned is that the younger people do not understand the breadth of a banking career, and that’s what we’re trying to expose them to,” he notes. “For most of them, the bank ends at their mobile phone. But this career is so diverse—what we’re trying to do in the coursework is expose them to all of the avenues you can go into as a banker.”

Both Belasco and Bexley have also formed advisory boards of bankers, regulators and other stakeholders that provide input on the curriculum based on the needs of the industry.


Recruit on campus
Belasco encourages bankers to actively participate in recruiting events on campus or job fairs hosted by local schools. “Those are key to getting the exposure—getting on campus,” he says. Internships can be a great place to start bringing in new talent, and both Belasco and Bexley say they recommend that banks get serious about offering student loan repayment assistance or tuition forgiveness in exchange for a work commitment as a way to attract prospective employees, particularly to rural markets. (ABA is helping banks lead the way in this area with its recent endorsement of Gradifi, which allows bankers to offer loan repayment as a benefit to employees.)

Belasco says he’s optimistic about what the future holds for talent flowing into the industry, but notes that bankers must play an active role in helping find, train and inspire the next generation of young bankers. “I think it is all about education,” he concludes. “The more we professionalize [banking as a career], the better off we’re going to be in the industry. It’ll take time—there’s no question, but it has to start someplace.”


About Author

Monica C. Meinert is a senior editor at the ABA Banking Journal and VP for editorial strategy at the American Bankers Association, where she oversees ABA Daily Newsbytes.