January 31, 2011 12:33 am

Europe: MBA recruitment turns tougher

The recruitment crisis may be over for Europe’s business schools, with the continent’s corporates hiring once again, but that does not mean it has returned to business as usual.

What has vanished is the sense that an MBA course might serve as a shelter to tide a student through lean economic times. In the words of one recent graduate: “Nobody’s doing an MBA as a way of waiting out the job market any more.”

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But with the business environment still uncertain, and the hiring of a new MBA graduate an expensive, long-term decision, companies are taking a more selective approach to hiring. “Everyone who has experience in key emerging markets such as Russia, China or Brazil, or experience in Germany, is in demand,” says Alex Herrera, careers services director at Iese, the Barcelona-based business school.

Demand is picking up, but not necessarily at home, and, with companies keen to build their business in the Bric countries of Brazil, Russia, India and China, there is a need for candidates who can offer experience in those markets. But for Germany’s export champions, familiarity with the German business environment is also a big plus: anyone who can offer both is an attractive candidate.

“Some of these companies want more non-Germans to open up these markets for them, but they need those candidates to be able to interact easily with headquarters,” Herrera adds.

“From a global perspective, there is definitely a need for Bric experience, but also for German and US experience,” says Kerstin Wagner, head of global talent acquisition at Siemens, Europe’s largest engineering company.

But corporates elsewhere are also hiring. Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products company, has decided to launch a global MBA recruitment channel for the first time.

“Unilever has a strategy to grow its business and reduce its carbon footprint, which is very challenging, so we need the people to do it,” says Prerana Issar, global leadership development director at the company.

“We felt that MBA schools were a great source of top talent if we got it right, so we need to make sure that the expectations of the student and the company are precisely matched,” she adds.

Unilever is casting a wide net, looking at a mixture of global and regional schools from the top 30 in the FT’s yearly ranking, with a preference for older candidates with more work experience. The schools include London Business School, Insead and Switzerland’s IMD, as well as significant regional schools such as Iese in Barcelona.

“We want people with three or four languages, maybe with more than one passport, people who have worked in one or two countries. We’re looking at schools with a good gender balance, with more than 25 per cent women,” says Issar.

While the desire for more experienced candidates would seem to push the company in the direction of European one-year programmes, Issar says this is not necessarily the case. “It’s evenly balanced between the US and Europe … The schools are often bigger in the US – Harvard Business School has 900 students, and if only 10 per cent have an interest in marketing, that’s already a big pool.”

Iain McLaughlin, head of recruitment at KPMG, the accounting firm, in the UK, has a similar take on the need to be choosy. “MBA recruitment is coming back. But there’s a caveat – we are trying to be more thoughtful about it.” While KPMG casts its net still wider in terms of the schools it visits, it, too, is concerned about getting the right candidates. “You need to retain the candidate as well as recruit them,” McLaughlin says.

Alex Bastian, a US citizen, completed an MBA at Iese in May last year, and has joined the London office of Bridgehead International, a healthcare strategy company. His class had an easier time of recruitment than the previous one, he says, but his background in healthcare strategy was a huge bonus.

“My employer found me. They looked through the résumé books,” he says. “I was certainly lucky: they were looking for deep bio-pharma experience.”

With his prior experience working for Amgen and Pfizer in the US, he fitted the bill.

Constantin Beelitz, a German who studied in the UK, graduated from Insead last year and has since been employed at a leading strategy consultancy.

When he started the one-year programme in December 2009, he says, “the economic climate was pretty bleak, and we were all worried that it would affect the jobs market”. A year in Fontainebleau proved a valuable experience, however, and towards the end of the course, things were definitely picking up.

“There was quite a lot of interest from recruiters, though it wasn’t as promising as three years before,” he says. “You needed to be more proactive – it was clear that we weren’t going to graduate with three or four job offers in hand.”

Insead’s career service is also identifying a geographic shift in recruiters’ areas of interest. “Europe remained stable during the crisis overall. It was harder to find jobs in southern Europe, but eastern Europe was easier,” says Sandra Schwarzer, director of Insead’s careers services.

In a regional parallel to Iese’s Bric story, Schwarzer has noticed a tendency for consultancies and investment managers to look to fill openings in the larger eastern European countries, as well as for some of the region’s largest countries to seek to build up their management expertise. While the core European markets remain France, Germany and the UK, as before, new markets are also opening up, with growing interest from the Benelux countries and Scandinavia.

Business schools themselves are confident about the improving jobs market awaiting their graduates. Ninety-one per cent of London Business School’s students had found employment within three months of graduating in 2010, while Insead’s graduates saw a rise in average salaries from European employers even in 2009, in an environment much less promising than today’s.

Even those who are still looking for work are confident. “Nobody from my cohort has regretted doing the MBA,” says Beelitz. “You get so much out of it that it hardly matters if you need a couple of months more to get a job.”

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