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updated 2:54 PM UTC, Jul 28, 2018

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BankWork$, creating banking opportunity for at-risk job seekers, announces national expansion

(Editor's note: This column is being sent today as an added

"Harp" because of the going-national move of an award-winning Seattle program we have written about several years ago.)


 BankWork$, the initiative by former top bank executive Les Biller to create a career foothold in his old industry for people from inner-city and at-risk neighborhoods, is about to move from its successful launches in Los Angeles and Seattle to a national program, beginning with three new cities this fall.


Biller, who after his retirement as vice chairman and chief operating officer of Wells Fargo conceived the idea of training specially selected job seekers to be bank tellers and convinced a group of local banks in the two cities to get involved, has now created a multi-million-dollar plan to take BankWork$ national.


The national rollout commences this fall in the San Francisco Bay Area with Phoenix and Portland to come aboard in 2015 with three bank partners Bank of America, U.S. Bank and Wells each committing $1 million a year for five years with the Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation matching that.


The success of BankWork$, first in Los Angeles where about 130 people a year are being placed in teller roles since 2006, then Seattle once Biller and his wife, Sheri, relocated to the Northwest and he had become chairman of Sterling Bank, spurred him to decide to take the program national.


To head the program and guide its growth into a national presence, Biller has hired Colleen Anderson, a long-time banking executive and a former colleague of Biller's at Wells, where she capped her 22-year career there in the roles of executive vice president and head of both business banking and California banking.


Biller explained that Anderson, who most recently was executive vice president in charge of all aspects of business and consumer banking for Pasadena-based OneWest Bank, "was looking at what she wanted to do next and decided that BankWork$ was an opportunity to give back."


The BankWork$ office will be in Los Angeles, although Biller will be highly involved in the growth of BankWork$ from his Seattle office.


Anderson may well serve as inspiration, as well as role model for those selected to participate in the training to become tellers since she recalls that her career began in a position called "proof operator, a position one level below teller that no longer exists."


Biller explained that Portland, Phoenix and the Bay Area were selected to be the first of what he expects will be a dozen or more Bankwork$ cities in five years because the three partner have substantial presences in the three cities and and those cities have substantial low-income minority communities.


Biller explained that as other cities are selected each year toward the 12-15 target cities, other bank partners will be brought into the program, depending on what banks have key presence in each of the cities.


Biller envisions that each city will need to provide a governmental entity as a third partner, with California state and Los Angeles County helping fund the Los Angeles program and federal funding in Seattle.


He launched BankWork$, which he envisioned as the first step on a possible career ladder for those selected, in Los Angeles four years after he retired from Wells Fargo in 2002 at the age of 54 to allow him and his wife, Sheri, to turn their attention toward philanthropic activities, including formation of a family foundation.


The idea for BankWork$ was borne out of Biller's commitment to education and a realization that "education is too often pretty low on the priority list in homes where there are a lot of other issues facing the families." he said in an interview we did as he launched the program in Seattle.


"I figured a key step was putting parents of those kids to work in jobs that paid above the minimum wage at the outset and provided career options for the future. Then education for the kids would move up the priority list," he said.


It was after the Billers relocated to Seattle four years ago that, with the Los Angeles BankWork$ program having successfully graduated and placed hundreds of people, that he decided it was time to launch the program in a second city, his new home.


He says he realized that the program offered the opportunity to marry the needs of business with the needs of the community because many of the teller jobs at banks are jobs that "are basically the same from bank to bank, and many use the same equipment to accomplish the tasks."


 "We had to prove that it made economic sense for the banks, as well as the city and others who would be responsible for future funding as the program went on," Biller said, adding that he thinks

the results have been the proof.


 "We've had about a 75 percent graduation rate, about 70 percent are being employed by banks and 10 percent hired by other businesses," he said. The per-student cost is running about $4,000.


"Once they're hired, we make an effort to ensure they stay with the bank, remaining in close contact with the new hires for six months," Biller said. "We have some who have already received several promotions and raises since hiring."


So as Biller prepares to take BankWork$ national, he thinks the concept could also grow beyond banking.


"A very important part of this is that in a sense it goes beyond banking," Biller said. "We could do this across a number of industries where the demand is high enough and the positions similar for various companies, thus reducing the cost of each person being trained.

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