When ICICI Bank opened India’s first full-fledged electronic branches in 2012, many were left baffled.
For the Indian customer bred on tedious traditional banking even post-privatisation in the early 1990s, not interacting with human beings for routine tasks was just unsettling. Placing cheque-book requests, updating passbooks, conducting cash transactions, or even making enquiries—tasks that earlier ate up hours—were now one step short of instantaneous, thanks to the machines.
And that was just the beginning.
Today there is little need to even visit branches—automated or otherwise. There are fewer and fewer Indians who now deal directly with bank officials for their money. Indian banking’s future is now mostly discussed in terms of big data, artificial intelligence, bots, blockchain technology, mobile applications, digital money, and cloud computing.
Not surprisingly, once among India’s top employment creators, the sector now stares at job redundancies, more so in the lower rungs. Automation and digitisation are massively disrupting branch banking while bots are replacing even call-centre personnel.
YES Bank, for instance, recently cut down 12% of its workforce. In an email to Quartz, a spokesperson cited the organisation’s digital transformation as the cause. For similar reasons, India’s second largest private lender HDFC Bank trimmed its workforce by 11,000 between July 2016 and March 2017. ICICI Bank itself has expanded its network of fully-automated, round-the-clock branches to at least 110, its annual report for 2015-16 says. Others have also ventured into automated branch banking.
The effect of all of this on jobs can be gauged from the fact that the number of openings for clerks at the exams held by the Institute of Banking Personnel Selection for vacancies at public sector banks has drastically fallen from 25,000 in 2015 to 7,880 in 2017.
More and more lenders are wooing the digitally savvy, smartphone-toting millennials. The government, too, is pushing digital transactions to curb the parallel economy.
As a result, the need for staff per branch is falling.
From a cost perspective, too, it makes sense for the lenders. Transaction costs fall by half when a customer uses an ATM instead of visiting a branch. It goes down by three-quarters when mobile-banking or internet-banking is used.
Of course there are other reasons, too, behind job losses.
One is bad loans, which now form up to 12% of the total outstanding loans across all Indian banks. Instead of spending on business expansion, banks have had to focus on cleaning these up. Meanwhile, the economy’s slowdown has dampened the demand for funds, so banks aren’t hiring aggressively. And new-age and tech-intensive niche banks, working on thin margins, are even more stringent about hiring. For instance, the new payments bank soon to be launched by Mukesh Ambani-led Reliance will mainly operate online or through outlets of his telecom firm, Reliance Jio, where employees will also provide basic banking services, reports say.
Banks are in for a drastic role shift that involves adapting to more complex tasks.
“Due to the use of technology, a lot of repetitive, mundane jobs such as data entry are being performed by machines. Therefore, employees need to upgrade their skills,” said Sunil Goel, managing director of executive search firm GlobalHunt. “People must get into profiles such as product development, risk management, underwriting loans, etc.”
With the focus firmly on building the online and mobile infrastructure, organisations will seek employees well-equipped with digital skills.
“We are re-skilling and training our existing staff…We have increased our hiring of technology graduates,” the YES Bank official said. The company expects young hires to have “a focus on fintech and innovation requiring new-age, modern competencies.”
Overall, those with digital marketing experience are likely to find the going easier. “With all banks providing new and improved services on digital channels, they are also using this medium for customer acquisition,” said Ajay Shah, head of recruitment services at TeamLease, a human resources service company.
Yet, some private banks are still looking to expand their branch network, which means more jobs, said Rajesh Dahiya, executive director, Axis Bank. “There will be growth for at least two more years but the game is going to change in the next three-five years.”
The message to employees is fairly clear: Shape up or ship out.