MICHELE NORRIS, Host:
With some banks closing and many others announcing layoffs, this is not a good time to find a job in the financial-services industry. But business is booming at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. That's the agency that insures bank deposits and takes over when a bank fails. Reporter Chana Joffe-Walt was in Irvine, California, as some new FDIC recruits got their marching orders.
CHANA JOFFE: It's your fourth day on the job. Six weeks ago, you might have been selling subprime mortgages. Now, you work for the government, the FDIC. Thirty-two of you new employees are arranged in three, long rows. One of the bosses moves up to the podium, tells you he's Tom Murray, and he's glad you've come on board.
NORRIS: And this is historical, what we're doing here. The part that you're playing and the effort that we are doing is integral to helping the economy. The FDIC's mission is to ensure the stability of the banking system.
JOFFE: That last line, it's kind of a throwaway. People seem to say that all of the time here. The FDIC's mission is to ensure stability of the banking system. But think about that for a sec. Welcome to your new job. Now, all you have to do is ensure the stability of the banking system. No one gets up at the podium and says, you are here to help us prepare for the largest number of bank failures in decades.
We're not only talking about huge banks, the ones that are in the news all the time, although we have seen a few enormous banks fail recently. A lot of small banks - they're failing, too - banks that loaned aggressively to commercial real estate developers. And now that developers aren't paying back those loans, the banks don't have enough money.
The new hires in this room and the 500-plus yet to be hired, they're being brought on so they can be there on the day of collapse, so they can quietly show up and take over. Some will secure vaults. Some will audit files. Some will investigate fraud or malfeasance. Tom Murray tells them, you will need to be discreet on your mission. You don't want to cause panic, and you don't want to cause a run on the bank.
NORRIS: So, some of you may go to a bank closing this weekend. Don't tell your significant other where you're going, or what you're doing, because everyone knows someone who knows someone. You need to be sure you don't talk in a conversation that can be overheard. Don't check in at the hotel and say, oh, well, I'm here for this event. Just, you know - you are on a secret mission.
JOFFE: The conference room is quiet. Mouths are slightly open. And then, it's computer time. Everyone open up your laptops. A large man coaches the group from the front of the room. Let's log into those new accounts. Okay, type in your user name and then - no fear. Yeah, N-O space F-E-A-R, no fear, no fear. Everyone got it?
U: Okay, can I get everybody's attention again, please?
JOFFE: The health-insurance lady pops her head in, and reminds the group to hurry up and get their paperwork done because who knows where you'll be come Friday.
NORRIS: It has a bit of a surreal feel.
JOFFE: This is Bridgett Pukszta. She's a four-day-old FDIC employee. She used to manage a large commercial and residential real estate portfolio in Southern California.
NORRIS: I have assignments coming up pretty quickly, and I'm running around looking for a cable lock for the laptop.
(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)
NORRIS: And, you know, passwords aren't totally up and running. People haven't been entered into the system. Quite frankly, this is a big undertaking.
JOFFE: Two months ago, the FDIC didn't even have an office in Irvine, California. A couple months from now, they'll have a brand new, six-story building, and 600 new employees who will have all been guaranteed long hours, steady work and lots of travel.
NORRIS: So, I've basically tried to clear off all my weekends and my weeks for the next two months. Basically, I've just decided to live with uncertainty for a while.
JOFFE: The last time the FDIC was expanding like this was in the late '80s, the savings and loan crisis. Tom Murray, the secret-mission guy? He got his job back then.
NORRIS: There's a lot of similarities. There's more work than there are people, practically, to do it. And back then, for one thing, I was 20 years younger, so it made it a lot easier in that regard. And energy for the job certainly does help.
JOFFE: But nothing trumps experience at the FDIC - especially bank-closing experience. The agency is bringing on a lot of new people. But they're also calling up retirees - people who worked through the late '80s and early '90s - and asking them to come back or at least be on call, available so someone can phone Thursday night and say, hey, we've got a failure tomorrow, can you work it? Up on the top floor of the Irvine office, Rick Hoffman, he's the one usually making those calls. He's an FDIC associate director.
NORRIS: Either you've had experience working for us or you haven't. And you really can't learn how to be an FDIC claims agent anywhere except FDIC. There's not a similar function anywhere in the country.
JOFFE: But in a time of crisis, hundreds of new staff, four days of orientation, and learning on the job will have to do. Orientation for the first group of new FDIC hires ended on a Thursday. That Friday, three banks failed. One week later, four more.
For NPR News, I'm Chana Joffe-Walt.
NORRIS: And there's more about the banking crisis on our Planet Money podcast and blog. Visit npr.org/money.
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