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Tapping into a new talent pool for banking

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Banks and credit unions are challenged to fill job openings as they go up against fintechs and other competitors in a tight labor market.

Craig Alexander, head of talent acquisition at BMO Financial Group, tells us about their new hiring program focused on a population segment looking for opportunity.

A few takeaways from the conversation:

  • BMO’s new program is aimed at refugees, displaced persons and other new immigrants with previous bank experience or other transferable skills and abilities.
  • A notable focus is on finding people with strong technology backgrounds, as banks are losing such workers to fintech upstarts at the fastest pace on record.
  • He says BMO expects to start setting goals for the program in early 2023, and that it wants to encourage other banks to create similar programs of their own.

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Finding, hiring and keeping talent is a pressing issue in banking these days, leading some institutions to get creative in how they fill what can be a long list of job openings. Joining us from Toronto for this week’s podcast is Craig Alexander, head of talent acquisition at BMO Financial Group. We’ll be talking about a new program at BMO that focuses on hiring refugees and other newcomers to North America. Craig, thanks for making a little time for this conversation… 

Thanks for having me, Terry. It’s great to be here today.

Craig, let’s start with an overview of the talent situation that banks are facing these days. Banking is a lucrative industry for workers. It’s dynamic, it offers career mobility, and these factors have for decades made it a magnet for ambitious workers. What do you think is driving today’s difficulties with hiring and with retention that seem to be affecting all levels of banking?

At the heart of it is really supply versus demand, an unprecedented a choice for job seekers driven by an acceleration of workforce trends through the pandemic. This is affecting all industries and especially those with significant front-line and niche skilled worker populations. At BMO, we view this as a tremendous opportunity for us to differentiate our value proposition rooted in our purpose. We find that employees in this market are really looking for more flexibility for how they work and an organization they are aligned with more than just superficially, so aligned with the values and purpose of the organization. For BMO, our purpose is to boldly grow the good and what that means to us is really striving for a thriving economy, a sustainable future, and an inclusive society.

One of the ways that BMO is addressing its talent challenge is by seeking to recruit refugees, displaced persons and other recent immigrants to the U.S. and Canada. Tell us more about that, including where the idea for this came from and when your program started.

The program started in August of this year as a result of a series of global crises, leading record numbers of people to seek new lives in North America meant that there’s really an urgent need for newcomers to find homes, work and stability. The problem here is too big and too complex just for governments alone to manage. And we felt it was tremendously important for businesses to step up and make a positive impact. That’s where BMO is really helping to, I think, lead the way with this program. We see it as an opportunity not only to find talented individuals to fill roles, but also to offer support to newcomers, both refugees and immigrants who are arriving in the U.S. and Canada and face many barriers and instability. This newcomer talent program will help us bring qualified newcomers to BMO so that they can find financial independence and social connections they need to restart their lives, while at the same time enabling us to fill roles across the bank as we navigate the tight labor market.

How is BMO getting out the word in immigrant communities that you’re hiring, and do you have a target number of people that you’re looking to hire through this program?

The newcomer talent program includes a personalized landing page that makes it easy to explore job opportunities at BMO and employment readiness training provided by BMO volunteers. To match relevant candidates with open roles, we’re also partnering with two specialized employment organizations. We don’t have a target hires per se as BMO continues to hire for thousands of rules across all lines of business within the bank in areas like personal and business banking and technology and operations. We’ve also already established a strong track record over decades upon decades of hiring newcomers and in partnership with the two organizations that are supporting some of these newcomers. The plan is to track metrics quite closely and set a baseline after our first few quarters of the program given it’s not meant to be a flash in the pan. We are building a sustainable, inclusive program to support this population over the years ahead and so I’d see us setting a baseline, given it just started in August, probably in Q1 or Q2 of next year with some targets.

There are many different job opportunities inside the walls of a bank. You mentioned a few of them in your previous answer. Are you looking for people with specific banking experience or are banking-adjacent skills also of interest to you here?

Yeah, I think it’s both. We’re really focused on hiring from underleveraged talent pools and are building new skills with existing talent. This, combined with our commitment to being digital-first, allows for automation of repeatable work and frees up human resources to focus on jobs that need knowledge, advice, empathy and judgment. Beyond this, BMO has a strong focus on upskilling and reskilling both helping us to address talent gaps and enhance existing skills brought from other places in the world, helping these newcomers contribute to their new country in a way that’s relevant to our business. We also view, from a core skill set perspective, lending, banking skills as universally transferable, equally technology skills as universally transferable. Then the soft skills that often come alongside newcomers of resilience, learning agility are invaluable to allow those that perhaps don’t have the tech or banking lending skills to plug in their functional area and learn with our support.

You mentioned technology. I would think that there are at least a fair number of displaced people with technology related experience. So, with digital banking on the rise, IT is one of those areas that banks want to further build out, but every other industry wants those workers, too. So how are you looking at the opportunity set so far as people who know tech but don’t know banking?

Yes, I think we love those people. We’re really looking to build at BMO, a high-performance, digitally enabled bank that’s ready for the future. And we’re upskilling our employees to help us accomplish this goal. We see technology workers as really a transferable skill and easier for newcomers to find a platform of catered banking services is really aligned to our purpose. Enabling those that perhaps have deep technical skill backgrounds, but not that North American banking rolodex and acumen. We have industry leading learning and skill development. We also have been one of 18 founding partners of the World Economic Forum Skills Link Alliance that was announced in June 2021. That’s really a new ecosystem for employers, governments and technology and learning providers that are working together to advance the reskilling revolution. And so we have a multi-year commitment to use skills as a part of this to underpin how we hire, develop, and move talent. Then lastly, we have a BMO Forward program more aimed at individuals which could include those in tech and ops areas that haven’t been as deeply involved in purely digital skills to upskill in that area. So really focused around digitech, data science, AI, robotics, and cybersecurity while also in including human skills such as empathy, resilience, judgment and cultural intelligence.

In the immigrant communities that you’re targeting with this program, neither English nor French, the two official languages of Canada, and, of course, the official language of the US. They’re often not the first language. So where does language ability fit in as a job qualification and does your hiring program include any provisions for helping new employees learn English and/or French?

I think we’re looking for the best candidates for the roles and are willing to work with individuals if English or French is their second, third, fourth or fifth language. In many of our tech roles and second-line banking roles that support lending and retail operations, we really do have the chance to leverage skills, and help upskill on the language. I think key here is that the skills are the currency. Additionally, we have the advantage of possessing roles where different languages can be beneficial to our customer base in the communities where they oftentimes prefer to transact in their native tongue. A great career trajectory could look like we have someone with banking skills from overseas who’s come to this country as a newcomer – we plug them in perhaps in a back-office lending role where they come up to speed, we help give them the tools, the training from a language perspective for the North American banking industry, and perhaps then have them in a front-line role where they’re able to leverage based on where that banking branch is located, their native tongue as well to support the customer base. Then obviously in the tech arena, a number of our jobs don’t require the same acumen with English from day one, so supporting those tech skills over, we can give them that familiarity as they’re coming up to speed with English or French.

Craig, you mentioned earlier that you’re working with employment agencies in this effort. Tell us more about them. Are they standard recruiting firms or are they perhaps specialist-type recruiting firms that have experience and focus on new immigrant populations?

They’re both longstanding partners of ours and neither are recruitment firms. They’re both specialized employment organizations. In Canada, we’re partnering with Access Employment, which is a leader in helping newcomers integrate into the Canadian job market. And in the U.S., we’re partnering with Upwardly Global, which is the first and longest serving national organization that helps immigrants and refugees in the U.S. reset their careers.

Let me run a scenario by you. Let’s say I’m a Ukrainian refugee now in Poland and I have technical experience that could be of interest to BMO. I’m a software engineer in the video game market, and I really think I have something that I could offer. Do I have to get to North America first and then start the process with Upwardly Global or Access Employment? Or are you recruiting overseas as well?

For most of BMO’s technology jobs, the vast majority of our jobs and employees are based within North America and we’re in the process of expanding our footprint in the U.S. through the establishment of physical BMO offices or hubs, as we’re calling them, in a handful of us cities and through our pending acquisition of Bank of the West. It’s definitely not a requirement to enroll or work with Access Employment or Upwardly Global to join BMO as an employee. These partners, though, often offer job seekers many valuable services, things like pre-arrival services and support BMO by providing skilled candidates for many of our jobs. Through these partners, we do review pre-arrival candidates, but to come on board with BMO, individuals must be legally eligible to work in their respective jurisdiction, whether that be Canada or the U.S.

As we’ve already discussed, BMO’s North American market comprises Canada and the U.S. Both countries have long welcomed immigrants, be it for economic or political reasons, but each also has different approaches to immigration, and that includes different rules. So how is the recruiting and the hiring process different from one country compared to the other?

I think generally we leverage both countries’ immigration system to recruit immigrants in an effort to take advantage of global experience, awareness and networks, increase the diversity of our workforce, address the labor shortages we spoke about earlier, and improve customer service by better connecting and serving diverse customers and clients. It also provides us with a global outlook and different perspectives, both in terms of experience and culture. Immigration systems are critical for us to find niche skill sets that are not sufficiently available in their respective markets. Use of the U.S. and Canadian immigration system and their various programs really do help us take advantage of finding qualified individuals that meet our needs in the future.

This certainly seems to be a win-win situation. You need skilled employees and new immigrants need opportunities. I know BMO is still early in rolling out the program, but it represents a potentially valuable experiment for the industry. What does success in this experiment look like for you?

I think for us, we definitely view this as a program we’re long-term committed to. We have been committed to this segment for many years now, so I it isn’t an experiment for us. This is a huge channel of our hires presently and we are doubling down on that commitment through this program. I know even just looking at Upwardly Global, to pick on our U.S. partnership with a third party for newcomers, we’ve hired hundreds just over the last couple of years. And so we’re really excited about building a sustainable program given the future needs of our North American economy and the expected newcomer populations. Really, really excited about sharing those proof points in the future and ensuring that others follow suit, whether that be in banking or more broadly across the economies in North America as we see this being a crucial engine to our growth and the growth of the economy overall.

On the face of it, this program makes a lot of sense, so we’ll stand by to hear more about how it works out and what you learn in the process. So Craig Alexander, head of talent acquisition at BMO, many thanks again for joining us on the BAI Banking Strategies podcast.

Oh, my pleasure. It was just wonderful to connect with you, Terry. I appreciate the time.

Craig Alexander, is head of talent acquisition at BMO Financial Group.