2007 Business Review: DFAS attracts local bank workers

The expansion of DFAS at Griffiss Business and Technology Park vaulted the government and the business/finance sector into two of the top three spots on the Mohawk Valley's job growth list. Health-care jobs also are among the three fastest-growing sectors.

The planned addition of 600 jobs at DFAS, announced in August 2005, has led to an expected growth in government hiring. But it has also created a ripple effect as workers transfer to DFAS from private banks and financial institutions.

"It's like if DFAS hires a person and they, say, came from a credit union, which might hire someone from a retail operation and it just trickles down," said Alice Savino, executive director of the Workforce Investment Board of Herkimer, Oneida and Madison Counties.

The Mohawk Valley's finance and government industries tied for the most job growth in 2006 - 200 jobs added in each sector.

The biggest contributor to the government gains was hiring by DFAS, said Mark Barbano, a regional economist at the state Department of Labor's office in Utica. Just 21 months ago, the federal agency's Rome operation was on a base-closing commission's chopping block.

But a concerted lobbying effort by federal, state and local officials not only preserved Rome's DFAS presence but led to its expansion as the federal government consolidated other DFAS operations in Rome.

Moving up

Some private-firm employees with financial experience see a move to the agency as an opportunity to upgrade their careers, Savino said.

"They're moving up their career ladder, which of course involves more pay but it's a natural evolution, I guess," she said.

Last year, the Rome-based site hired 253 employees and is on track to have 1,000 employees by 2008, said Ed Abounader, president of the facility's union, the American Federation of Government Employees.

That hiring bodes well for job seekers with financial experience, but some companies have reported struggling to either retain employees or fill positions because of competition from DFAS, said Andrea Panara, a Rome resident who has been an accounting technician at the Rome agency for two and a half years.

"It's a good starting salary," Panara said. "The benefits are excellent, and the hours are great." Panara has been conducting orientations for new DFAS employees since April 2006.

Accounting technicians, who account for about 70 percent of the employees at the agency, earn an average starting salary of $28,862, while accountants start at $35,752.

Panara said she sees applicants who are employed at the Bank of New York, APAC Customer Services and other local financial institutions.

"We have a lot of resumes in the queue, a lot of folks that are trying to get in and there are only so many spots that we can fill," she said.

Plenty of applicants

During the last hiring wave, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service received 800 applicants for 75 job slots. The supply of candidates is so plentiful that the agency is raising the minimum application score required for employment consideration 15 points to 90, Abounader said.

Some officials at local financial institutions, however, contend their recruiting efforts aren't suffering.

Bank of America, which has a call center on Horatio Street in Utica and 12 local branches, would not disclose its local employment numbers or how they have changed in 2006.

"Locally, we have had good success in recruiting and retaining talent for the customer service call center operation, as well as other parts of the bank, and we greatly value being a part of this community," said Kelly Sapp, a spokeswoman for the Charlotte, N.C.-based financial institution.

The Bank of New York has an administration and processing center in Oriskany with 850 employees, an increase since 2005, according to Elaine Everhart, a spokeswoman at the New York City-based financial institution who didn't specify how big the employee increase was.

"The majority of our staff positions are in the fields of trade specialist, loan administrator and payment processing," she said. "Therefore, most of our hires fall into these categories, and as a growth center for The Bank of New York, we are continuing to expand our staff through 2007."

The Bank of Utica on Genesee Street traditionally has had very little employee turnover, said Marie Bord, senior vice president at the bank, which has 50 employees, three of whom were hired in 2006.

"Seventy percent of our employees have been here over 10 years, and 42 percent have been here over 20 years," said Bord, who said having long-time employees appeals to customers who feel more comfortable with familiar faces.

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