ORLANDO — Big banks know they're losing the war for talent, as many of their prospective new employees flee to startups and other technology firms. Now some senior bank executives are responding by doubling down on old-school recruiting tactics.

"It's hand-to-hand combat," says Catherine Bessant, who oversees global technology and operations for Bank of America (BAC).

"You can only do it with the individual — it's hard to do en masse. It takes classic recruiting, the classic element of, get someone to come listen," she said in an interview Thursday. "You put a job out on a website and it won't get the reaction that you want it to, because it is a personal sell."

The Silicon Valley brain drain from Wall Street is especially challenging for the massive technology operations inside banks like Bessant's, which lack a certain coolness factor next to the likes of Apple or Google. That's not to mention the reputational hit that banks have taken since the financial crisis, the generally slow and conservative approach to innovation within the industry, or the regulations affecting banks' traditional profitability and allocation of resources.

"Banks do not have a technology brand," even though "I run a huge fintech organization," says Bessant, who has a technology budget of about $9 billion.

Bessant wants banks to become better known for their technology efforts, especially in the minds of prospective employees: "It isn't about having a different brand from Bank of America. It's about having that brand be recognized in the attraction of talent, for being a fintech brand."

To that end, she says, the bank has changed its traditional recruiting tactics. For example, it has switched its focus from universities where B of A "had historical relationships" to the top schools for operations, engineering and technology.

"We run development programs for our senior-level people in ops and tech, and in information and data security, and we run those in conjunction with these top universities to get our people on campus," she says, adding that she also does student forums. "That's why I say it's back- to-basics recruiting."

Bessant was speaking at Retail Banking 2014, an American Banker conference.

Originally published by Bank Technology News.

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