Paul Perea, president of U.S. Bank’s downtown branch, said that his bank has hired 15 percent to 20 percent fewer tellers during the last 20 years.

It wasn’t so long ago that if someone wanted to withdraw money from a bank account or transfer funds, there was but one option — go to the bank and stand in line to see a teller.
Consumer banking options widened in the 1970s when ATMs made their debut. After ATMs came telephone banking, and then the Internet, which allowed consumers to perform almost every account transfer procedure without ever talking to a person.
The busy bank lobby became a quieter place, and long lines for tellers became a fading memory.
And while some people still prefer to bank in person, the rise in the number of people choosing not to trek into the bank lobby has resulted in the hiring of fewer tellers. Add wireless banking, done over the Internet through cell phones, and tellers might soon become an endangered species.
There are no hard numbers that detail the demise of bank tellers, and no one has made an effort to conduct a survey, but some statistics do point to a decline in the profession.
Retail banking jobs, most of which are teller or phone customer service positions, represent about 25 percent of all banking jobs. Less than 15 years ago, retail banking jobs represented nearly half the banking world’s work force.
In 1993, banks that had assets of at least $300 million averaged 35 employees, and 15.5 of those positions were tellers. Banks with assets between $300 million and $900 million had an average of 229 employees, and 102 were teller positions. In 2006, retail banking positions were estimated to account for only one of every four banking jobs, according to the American Bankers Association.
While it’s clear that the number of tellers has been decreasing, most bankers agree that the position will never completely fade away, and many say that branch banking might be responsible for keeping tellers in the lobbies.
Prior to 1987, banks in Colorado were limited by law to one main location and one detached location within 3,000 feet of the bank, so consumers and business owners were forced to visit their bank’s physical location for banking matters.
“That’s why when you go into one of these big banks downtown, you see these gargantuan teller stations with 10 or 12 windows and only three tellers working. They were designed for a different time when more people came into the bank,” said Colorado Bankers Association President Don Childears.
While technology has lessened the need for tellers, Childears said branch banking has made hiring tellers a necessity because large banks need to staff their multiple suburban branches.
Every bank has to have some tellers, so more branches means more tellers.
The ABA says that 76.7 percent of banks planned to add branches this year, said ABA spokeswoman Susan Besaw.
“I would conclude that as long as they’re building banks they’re going to be hiring tellers,” Besaw said.
Paul Perea, downtown branch president of U.S. Bank, estimates that the number of tellers at his bank has decreased between 10 percent and 15 percent in the last couple of decades. However, Steve Shaffer, retail banking president for Chase in Colorado, said that teller hiring has remained steady because of staffing needs at multiple branches.
Still, the advent of banking technology has changed banking employment needs.
“There’s no doubt that ATMs and the Internet have changed banking forever,” Childears said. “And, it’s probably going to keep changing.”
The newest banking technology could make its debut as early as next year.
Software and wireless phone companies are creating networks that will allow consumers to make wireless fund transfers using cell phones.
Cell phone banking is already in use in Europe and other countries.
Cingular Wireless, is working with software company Firethorn Holdings to develop technology that will allow consumers pay bills, check balances and transfer funds using their cell phones.
“What our product basically does is create a common language between bank and cell phone networks, and it streamlines the cell phone banking process for consumers,” said Firethorn founder and CEO Tripp Rackley. “And it creates a much more secure connection than someone might have with their cell phone today.”
For instance, Rackley said that if consumers were to use their cell phones to type in the word “password” it would take 37 keystrokes. The Firethorn applicant would require eight.
Rackley, who also founded the company that created the first application that allowed Internet banking, is in the process of pitching his product to the nation’s largest banks.
But, some foresee problems with cell phone banking.
The ABA’s Besaw said one problem is that there is no regulation of the electronic transfer fund business, and that if procedures aren’t followed correctly or network errors cause transfers to fail, banks could be left holding the bill.
So, despite the unending upgrades in technology, it’s unlikely that teller jobs will ever vanish, Besaw said.
“Because, let’s face it, technology has flaws, and people are the ones that fix those flaws,” she said.
Rob.Larimer@csbj.com