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For years, PNC Bank found it relatively easy to fill the humblest branch job: the teller. Offering modest wages and standard hours, the position required only basic skills and was supposed to diminish with the advent of new technology such as ATMs and online banking.

Today, PNC needs more tellers than ever and is having trouble finding them.

Throughout the U.S. service economy, companies are stumbling across similar problems as they transform once-mechanical frontline jobs into troubleshooting and marketing roles that demand greater abilities. For banks, the entry-level teller position has become the primary way to win new customers and sell new services to existing ones.

As a result of that switch, and a boom in the number of bank branches, there's a staffing crunch in the industry that is forcing employers to raise wages, perks and training to get qualified staff. PNC is targeting retirees, homemakers and college students to fill teller jobs. This month, it started offering some health benefits for part-time staff in these positions.

"Our model has changed," says Kathy D'Appolonia, manager of corporate recruiting at PNC Financial Services Group Inc., the bank's Pittsburgh parent company. "In effect, we're competing not only with other banks but all retailers to find staff."

Banks say many of today's high school graduates are no longer equipped with the skills - from fundamental math to the customer-service touch - to fill increasingly complicated jobs.

"People don't know how to count back change," says J.J. Sanchez, a College of Southern Nevada official working with local banks to launch a new teller-training program. "I hear that from everybody. It is a lost art."

The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted five years ago that the number of tellers would drop 12 percent this decade, from almost 500,000 in 2000. Instead, despite new, labor-saving technologies, the number of tellers rose to 603,000 last year and is expected to edge up in years ahead.

The time when bankers' hours denoted a short workday are long gone: Branches are often staying open into the evening and weekends. Tellers, who generally have a high-school education, are being positioned to interact more with customers and nudge them toward newer financial services.

"It's amazing what customers will tell a teller sometimes," says James Edrington, who runs the American Bankers Association's certification programs, including a new training course for tellers. "If someone's talking about the need for a new kitchen, with a sharp teller the light bulb may go off: 'home-equity line of credit!' "

Tellers' median pay was $22,140 in 2006, according to BLS. That will likely soon change. This year, bank executives listed tellers at No. 2 - behind business lenders - among positions requiring "significantly more" pay to attract or retain workers, according to a survey from the bankers' association.

Officials at LaSalle Bank, the Chicago unit of ABN Amro Holding NV, have started discussing whether teller applicants need an associate degree instead of just a high-school diploma or equivalent. Their worry: Bank branches tend to fill more-senior positions from the ranks of tellers. As a result, the company needs people with more education to fill the teller jobs so they can be trained and promoted.