The phone rang at Tryon Search Group early Monday, shortly after Wachovia announced it would sell its banking operations to Citigroup.
The woman who called, a bank employee in her 20s, had reached out to the financial recruiter before, just in case, company President John Baldassarre recalled. Now, her tone had changed: She needed a contingency plan, fast.
Anxiety came on the heels of Wachovia's forced union with the New York financial giant, with some experts speculating the deal could result in 7,000 job cuts companywide. That's meant an increasing number of calls to local recruiters, who are already busier this year because of the economic slowdown, they said.
It's not yet clear what the Wachovia-Citigroup deal means for Charlotte workers. Some say the city should brace for a mass exodus to other financial centers; others say a major layoff could saturate an already crowded local job market.
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Still others say the deal, in the long run, could open the door for new businesses to thrive in Charlotte.
“Up to this point, we could say things like, ‘For this kind of job, you can walk next door,'” to another bank, said Cynthia Carlson, a principal at executive search firm Campbell/Carlson.
Now people, increasingly wary of the banking industry, aren't sure where to turn. In the short term, at least, “it's going to be very rough for Charlotte,” said Carlson, whose calls from job-seekers are up 45 percent this year.
With about 20,000 employees in Charlotte, Wachovia is the city's second-largest employer, behind Carolinas HealthCare.
Citigroup plans to keep the combined retail bank based in Charlotte, though its corporate headquarters and the combined corporate and investment bank will stay in New York.
“It's essential to have a strong presence in Charlotte, North Carolina,” Citi CEO Vikram Pandit said in a Monday conference call with investors.
Analysts have said Charlotte workers could take a hit from the deal, though keeping the retail banking base here could help.
If Charlotte bank jobs are cut, former employees might have a hard time finding alternatives that pay as well.
Finance and insurance jobs have the highest average pay in the region by far – more than $96,000 a year, according to federal labor statistics. That's almost 50 percent more than telecommunications, data processing and other information-based jobs, and twice as much as real estate jobs.
Also, while the six-county Charlotte region's jobs are spread across several industries – no one sector has more than 12 percent of total jobs – most areas where jobs are more plentiful than banking offer a steep pay cut from a Wachovia corporate position. For instance, the Charlotte market has seen a big rise in retail and hospitality jobs in recent years, yet both industries had an average pay of less than $27,000 last year.
It's getting harder to find a job at all in the Charlotte area, some say. The Charlotte metropolitan area's jobless rate was 7.1 percent in August – the highest level since 1990, according to data released Friday by the N.C. Employment Security Commission.
If things continue to worsen in the financial sector, companies in other industries might consider reducing their work force, said Doug Hearn of Williams, Roberts, Young Inc., a Charlotte staffing firm that works with laid-off employees.
Michael Dunn, who is unemployed and has been looking for three weeks, said he's worried that a mass layoff from Wachovia could saturate the job market. Dunn, 31, has applied for a variety of jobs, from customer service to being a flight attendant, and has gotten no response. “I'm willing to do anything,” he said.
Recruiters say the lack of information about what's to come is fueling most of their clients' concerns.
“What most of us do in that situation is fill the void with the negative,” said Tom Near of Near & Associates, an executive search firm based in Ballantyne. “That's human nature.”
Many bankers he's talked to recently are more open to jobs at small community banks than in the past, he said. That could be good for Charlotte, if talent stays in town, Near said. It would also create opportunities for other Charlotte banks to thrive, he said.
Mike Mullis, a Memphis site selection consultant with 30 years experience in company relocations and expansions, said banking is important to the Charlotte region but doesn't define it.
Between its diverse economy and good quality of life, he said, the area will remain attractive to many industries.
For instance, Mullis was in the Charlotte region recently for the opening of the French company Turbomeca's new plant in Monroe, which makes helicopter engines, he said.
Even a major layoff of bank employees could be an asset to the region, said Dennis Donovan, a New Jersey consultant who has helped companies with relocations and expansion for more than 30 years.
“Near term, it's a benefit,” he said. “There very well could be a surplus of qualified workers. … The community may not like it, but as a location consultant, we love it.”