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Bank employees face uncertain future

Keep the change? Some bank staff don't know whether they are coming or going Keystone Archive

Banking is often referred to as a “people business” – but what does the future hold for the people who actually work for Switzerland’s 300-odd banks?

In the second of a series marking this week’s Finance Forum in Zurich, two banking experts talk about the challenges facing employees in this rapidly changing sector.

The two-day annual Finance Forum, which brings together leading lights from the Swiss financial services and IT sectors, focuses this year on the theme of “The bank of the future – strategies for increasingly competitive markets”.

In the run-up to the two-day meeting, organisers staged a preliminary debate about the changing strategies and technologies – and what they will mean for bank employees.

Participants included Willy Rüegg, head of the bank personnel sector of Zurich’s association of commercial employees, and Felix Zumbach, head of human resources at UBS wealth management and business banking.

Zumbach, responsible for staffing decisions at a major division of Switzerland’s largest bank, and Rüegg, who represents the interests of bank employees in Zurich, spoke to swissinfo afterwards, and shared their differing views.

swissinfo: A recent study projected further major job shrinkage until 2010, but Swiss banking bosses say the radical consolidation of the 1990s is now largely over. What is the real outlook?

Willy Rüegg: It is very hard to say what the reality is. The study [by St Gallen University’s banking and finance institute] predicted that the Swiss banking sector would shrink by about 15 per cent by 2010. I guess that is about right. We anticipate the loss of about 10,000 jobs in the period up to 2010 in the financial industry in Switzerland, most of them in Zurich.

Felix Zumbach: It will depend, on the one hand, on the economic development of the country and the finance industry and, on the other hand, on trends in, for instance, information technology. These will influence the structure of our banks, employment in banks and how banks interact with customers.

I think we will have a continuous trend towards lower employment in the banking industry, but it will not be an abrupt reduction as we have seen in the past. I also think we should avoid prognoses that use very high figures and thus create additional and unnecessary insecurity. It is the task of the banks to manage the process well, to create new chances and new jobs.

swissinfo: Another recent study found that bank employees are the most depressed and unhappy in Switzerland. How do you react to that?

W.R.: I think there is some truth in this. Banking and financial services jobs are very stressful, and we know that people work much too much – up to 12 or 14 hours a day. It’s partly a consequence of lean banking and we also have many cases of harassment, so I would agree that there is a health problem in banks.

F.Z.: I cannot back up the study based on our internal research and the feedback I get from my colleagues inside the bank. We think that we provide excellent working conditions and that we have, on the whole, very satisfied employees.

It is certainly a profession where you have to perform well, where you need high qualifications and where you have to take your chances and show initiative. There is therefore a higher level of expectations, but I think these are being met.

swissinfo: Many people feel there is a growing divide between the top executives, with their very high pay levels, and other employees, who may be demotivated as a result. Do you think this is a serious issue?

W.R.: We usually talk only about the higher levels, about highly skilled people with top salaries. We forget that most banking employees are not in the same salary category.

There is a big gap, and I think this is part of the general dissatisfaction that we feel among banking employees.

F.Z.: I think this is much more a media event than a real issue. At UBS, I think there is a very high level of recognition for the contributions our top managers have provided over past years. Recent increases in return to shareholders have also been proportionally above the rises in remuneration to top management.

swissinfo: Looking ahead, what do you think are the big issues facing bank employees?

W.R.: The major challenge is that [as an average employee] you cannot predict what will be required of you in the future. You are not involved in the development of new strategies or new business processes, but are more like a victim of the process.

F.Z.: It will be very important, as an individual employee, to cope with change at several levels.

One level is that of professionalism [and up-to-date knowledge]. At a second level, it will be necessary to have a high level of social competence, for instance in interaction with other employees. At a third level, the banking world depends on innovative people, flexible people, people who are able to advise their clients, analyse their needs and give professional advice.

swissinfo-interview: Chris Lewis

The Swiss banking sector is the largest single branch of the Swiss economy, accounting for some 11% of GDP – much higher than most countries.
It employs about 100,000 people directly.
Radical restructuring over the past decade has led to large-scale job losses, but top managers say the sector is now fit for the future.

Most analysts agree that the banking sector, a central pillar of the Swiss economy, faces major strategic challenges in years to come.

However, views about the prospects for bank employees differ sharply.

swissinfo put the same questions to a top HR executive at UBS and a leading employee representative – and received very different answers.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR