With a graduate degree from Columbia University in hand, Nathan Epstein was an attractive candidate for a job in the banking industry.
Shortly after kicking off his search, Epstein — who had studied applied math, programming and economics — landed an offer writing code for the derivatives trading division of one of the big U.S. banks.
He was planning to take the gig — until he chatted with Toronto-based online investment adviser, or "robo-adviser," WealthSimple.
"They had a culture and a work opportunity that was totally unlike what was being offered by other places," says Epstein, who found himself moving to Toronto last spring to become a software engineer for the upstart.
Banks face stiff competition when it comes to attracting and retaining the kind of talent they need to meet the evolving needs of customers in an increasingly digital world.
In addition to a general shortage of candidates with technical skills, many of the recruits who would have traditionally gone to work for large financial institutions are opting instead for jobs in small financial technology, or "fintech," companies.
"I don't think it's any surprise that we are experiencing challenges finding talent, specifically in digital," says Aayaz Pira, vice-president of digital channels at CIBC (TSX:CM).
"I don't think that's only for banks. I think that's generally in Canada. Fintechs are finding smart people, we're finding smart people, but generally speaking, digital was nascent in Canada for many years."
While upstarts allow employees to work flexible hours, wear jeans to the office and play beer pong during lunch breaks, those who work for such companies say the differences in corporate culture go beyond such superficialities.
Greater learning opportunities, less red tape and the chance to work on problems they feel genuinely passionate about are some of the reasons cited by those who have ditched jobs in traditional financial institutions for a role at a tech-savvy startup.
"When we want to make a change we talk about it in the morning and we're building in the afternoon," says Darryl Knopp, who took a job with Vancouver-based online lender Grow after a more than 20-year career in the financial services industry.
"That's an inspiring environment. It's very difficult to do that at large institutions."
In fact, the founder of Grow had himself ditched a career on Bay Street, including a stint at the Royal Bank of Canada (TSX:RY), to start the company.
Kevin Sandhu, who launched the fintech startup in late 2013 after eight years in investment banking and private equity, always loved working in finance.
"But big, stodgy corporate environments that were so averse to change really, really frustrated me," he says.
He was also frustrated with how little the financial services world was taking advantage of new technologies and advancements in data analytics, said Sandhu.
In an effort to attract tech-savvy new talent, some of the big Canadian banks are modifying their workplaces to bring them more in line with what one might see in Silicon Valley.
Last year, Scotiabank announced plans to launch a "digital factory" in Toronto that will bring 350 tech jobs, including user experience designers and data scientists, all under one roof.
The workplace environment at the digital factory will feel "very much similar" to that of a fintech company, according to Mike Henry, Scotiabank's executive vice-president of retail payments, deposits and unsecured lending. Henry made his comments during a panel hosted by the Canadian Club of Toronto last month.
Meanwhile, CIBC has sponsored hackathons, launched an innovation lab in Toronto's MaRS Discovery District and transformed one of its workspaces in downtown Toronto into a digital office, complete with pizza parties and a foosball table.
"The world of banking is changing," says Pira. "You're seeing a lot of the banks talking about how they're trying to adjust their culture we've done the same. We are fully casual. We're all in jeans."