CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) _ First Union Corp. is encouraging its 70,000 employees to buy personal computers so they can work at home and become more familiar with the company's online banking services.

Offering $500 discounts on PCs made by Dell and loans at prime rate, or 8 percent, officials at the nation's sixth-largest bank believe the program will create a contented, more productive and computer-savvy work force.

``It's really taking off,'' Sandy Morgart, a vice president at the bank's training center, said Friday. ``We're averaging about 150 orders per week. And we're registered 3,000 hits to an internal bulletin board and more than 2,500 calls to a special toll-free hotline.''

The program began when officials at the training center were brainstorming for ideas to encourage new employees to use the bank's online products on their own computers. The bank has been making a strong push in online bill-paying, securities trading and other Internet-based products and services.

While employees were training on the latest PCs at work, Morgart said, some did not have their own computers at home. Others own computers that weren't powerful enough to run the bank's software.

``We felt if they couldn't afford to buy them, let's find a way to make it more affordable,'' she said. ``First Union already is recognizing that our customer base is moving in this direction, and it's the same thing for our employees.''

Dell told First Union, ``the best participation rate they have achieved in this type of program was 50 percent at a company with 15,000 employees. We're hoping to match that,'' Mogart said.

That would mean as many 35,000 new computer sales for Dell.

Besides improving the skills of its workers, the program allows workers to hook into the office from home.

``We already have a lot of telecommuting happening across the company,'' Morgart said. ``And this is not just something for people with kids. Workers who are single also need a little balance in their lives, and this allows them to do their work the way they want to.''