CASHING IN: ATMs at a mall. Physical banking services are being driven out by online banking.PHOTO: POST TODAY ARCHIVE
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After working at a commercial bank for nearly 15 years, Soraya Nooprasert, 37, felt insecure for the first time in her job only recently. She was hired at the bank directly after graduating with a Bachelor’s degree.
At the time, the finance industry seemed to hold the promise of job security for fresh graduates like her. The prestige of the industry and sleek look of the bank employee uniforms attracted many young people to the field.
Now Ms Soraya, who works as a salesperson at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Sukhumvit Soi 67 branch, is seeing a different reality unfold.
“For anyone in the banking industry now, fear, uncertainty and doubt are inevitable to some extent,” she says. “A lot of people will have to look for new jobs if banks continue to scale back like they are now.”
“This is the toughest time in my career. I’m facing a heavier workload and stress over my uncertain future,” she adds.
She is referring to the fast-changing technology outpacing the traditional banking industry, leaving it trying to keep up.
Last year saw sweeping closures of bank branches as customers have gradually stopped relying on physical venues to conduct their transactions – instead, turning to online banking services.
According to the Bank of Thailand, commercial banks across the country closed 230 branches last year, a sharp increase from 2016 when only 45 branches were closed.
The closure of bank branches is expected to continue this year.
Banks are now focusing on promoting their online banking services, a big shift for bankers and the ageing population.
Major restructuring and downsizing are being implemented to respond to the mass branch closures.
Recent announcements from Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) and state-owned Krungthai Bank (KTB) about restructuring and scaling back labour forces have shaken workers.
The process is a heavy undertaking for banks as they seek to cut operating costs.
SCB announced a major restructuring plan to reduce nearly half of its staff from 27,000 employees to 15,000, as well as reducing branches from 1,153 to 400 in three years.
KTB has announced plans to scale back its existing 24,000 staff members by 30% in five years.
Despite a lack of formal announcements, other major banks are said to be drafting similar plans behind the scenes.
“A lot of [banking] staffers are middle-aged, and many of them don’t have Investment Consultant [IC] licences, which decreases their competitiveness in the company’s labour force,” said Ms. Soraya. “On average, including at our branch, only four out of ten employees hold IC licences.”
A bank teller from Thanachart Bank who asks not to be named said that the impact of these changes will be most strongly felt by the large number of economics and finance graduates produced every year.
“Banks in the process of rescaling realise that they have no policy to fire anyone so they will just overlook young job seekers,” she said.
She says the banking sector no longer holds the appeal it did in the past.
“For a while, those with a finance or economics degree could count on finance jobs, but with the removal of this safety net, it is difficult to imagine where young graduates will now go.”
Finance stands among the industries most severely affected by the onset of the digital era.
Kasikornbank (KBank) president Kattiya Indaravijaya says she has observed first-hand how online and mobile banking are leading customers away from service at physical branches.
However, these changes do not mean banks will stop opening new branches entirely, said Ms Kattiya. Instead, new branches will be integrated into spaces such as malls and office buildings.
Arthid Nanthawithaya, SCB president, recently said that financial transactions conducted through bank branches have reduced by 5% per year and will drop up to 40% in the next three to five years.
Sanong Khumnuch, executive vice-president of Thanachart Bank, said his company has seen a shift of at least 50% of customers switch over to online and mobile banking transactions.
Still, reliance on physical banks are not likely to slip below 30% as tens of millions of people in more remote areas of the country do not have access to internet banking. It will take at least a few more years for customers to switch over to online banking entirely.
The mass closures of bank branches has forced the Bank of Thailand to step in to and plan how to soften the blow for both customers and bank staff members.
Central Bank governor Veerathai Santiprabhob says commercial banks must have plans for looking after customers and employees affected by the downsizing of physical services.
He adds that part of this may include banks offering training on new skills to employees in order to prepare them for the digital age.
The Central Bank is due to announce new rules concerning banking agent licences that would let banks reach out to customers in remote areas with cheaper operating costs involved.
These regulations would allow financial institutions to appoint agents who can offer financial transaction services including money deposits, transfer and withdrawal, and payment.
Agents may include Thailand Post, Village Funds or small merchants.
Despite the announced plans to scale down staff, banks insist they have no intention of laying off employees. Instead, they will freeze the recruitment of new staff. Staff from branches facing closure will be relocated to work in other offices.
A manager of KTB’s Bang Chak branch Phasawee Khantichaimongkhol says KTB executives have assured the staff that the bank has no plans to fire employees.
“KTB’s downsizing initiative has no intention of firing any of our employees,” Mr Phasawee says. “The decreasing numbers in the labour force will come from employees who will retire in the next few years. The bank does create some incentive through early retirement deals, but it is ultimately up to them.”
“The bank will simply no longer hire new employees during the transition towards online banking. I think we are all moving in the right direction in doing this,” he adds.
For the tens of thousands of bank employees across Thailand, a safe bet now would be to obtain IC licenses to increase their flexibility to work in other roles with different demands.
“Luckily for our branch here, we have prepared our staff well,” Mr Phasawee says. “Nine out of our eleven staff members all have IC licences, which makes them qualified to do other things.”
Mr Phasawee says that older generations will likely continue to rely on online banking, with over 50% of KTB’s customers over 45 years old.
Ladawan Tangcharoen, assistant manager at the Bank of Ayudhya’s Sukhumvit Soi 67 branch, says only 20% of their clients over 45 years old use online banking.
Both Mr Phasawee and Ms Ladawan say that older generations’ hesitance over online banking relates to fears of hacking. Even promoting credit and debit cards among this demographic have proven a challenge for the older cashinclined clientele.
“The new generation should be happy with the restructuring happening in the finance industry,” says Ms Ladawan. “Moving around money has never been as easy as now. The only concern I have personally is the older generation
− those 45 years or older − not buying into the idea and staying scared of hacking.
“I think the Bank of Ayudhya has already been restructuring over the past 10 years. There used to be 30 staff members here. Now there are 10 and I have definitely felt the increase in workload from working here over 23 years.”
If her job ultimately becomes threatened, Ms Ladawan says she is prepared to open a restaurant business instead.
But for some young graduates, they may not have the option of deciding where to turn next.
ROOM TO GROW
While many are panicking about their future in the finance industry, some think the changes may offer a new opportunity to grow in their skill sets.
A staff member at Bangkok Bank (BBL) says she started off at a branch and went on to work at Bualuang Exclusive, the wealth management unit. She took the job after being approached by a senior staff member, seeing it as an opening to develop her abilities after five years of only working in the branch.
Her work at Bualuang Exclusive covers marketing and communication, drawing from new skills. She has gained further experience serving high-net worth clients, learning about the lifestyles and financial behaviour of this specific demographic.
Importantly, she notes, she has learned about sophisticated investment products, which was previously been a challenge for her.
Despite the added pressure, she says the experience has let her grow in skills and responsibilities.
At 37 years old, she is also eyeing new opportunities at the bank like working with massfinancial products.
In the meantime, however, she says she is content working at BBL, with the stable income and benefits remaining a key point attracting her to the industry.
She says that she is not overly concerned about the industry disruptions and downsizing plans. She is confident in the conservative management style of BBL, the country’s largest financial institution.
She adds the bank has even continued to open some new branches despite the closures seen among peers.
“I work with the wealthy clients, who are largely seniors at around 50 years of age on average, and find that most of them are familiar with human services rather than machines or digital platforms,” she says.
Another SCB branch staff member says the bank has kept its employees updated on the developments of the downsizing plan. They have continued to assure them they will be able to keep their jobs.
She says she plans to stay on in the company and add to her skill set, a key move to invest in her future in the industry.
The 35-year-old staffer has worked at SCB for around 11 years after starting as a teller in December 2006 at a big branch before moving to another one five years later.
After a decade of working as branch staff, she was promoted. She recently moved to the Ratchayothin branch, the same location of the bank’s headquarters, where she now works as deputy branch manager.
“The skills and knowledge to provide customers services and solutions are the key factors of my progress,” she said. “Hopefully, it will make me grow further.”
She adds that skills offered specifically by humans will continue to be relevant despite the rise of digital services.
She says the issue of cuts in the finance industry’s labour force have been overstated, adding she remains confident in the bank to cope with the changes.
Meanwhile, a staff member at a Bangkok branch of Kasikornbank says the only thing that would make him change jobs is if he was moved to a branch outside of the capital city, far away from his home. The distance would induce higher travel expenses for him, he said.
He remains confident that his skills will survive the digital era.
“I’m not scared about losing my job or being moved – I could fit in another workplace,” he says. “If I have to leave my current job, I will apply for work at other banks.”
“At the end of the day, the banking industry still offers a good income and welfare,” he says.
PAYING A PRICE: People walk past a branch of Siam Commercial Bank (SCB) in central Bangkok. SCB is set to downsize over the next three years as it embraces changes brought on by the digital banking era. It has announced plans to close down more than 700 branches of the existing 1,153 by 2020.