January 31, 2011 12:33 am

US: MBA employment crisis eases but anxiety remains

With the US economy imploding and the unemployment rate nearing 10 per cent, it took some bravery to embark on an MBA in the past two years – even if the career benefits are proven.

Lauri Joffe Turjeman, a student at University of Chicago Booth School of Business, thought hard about giving up her legal career in Israel but was keen to study in the US and determined to move into business. “I did have concerns,” she says. “That’s why it was critical for me to go to a highly ranked school because I felt like the economy was going to be rougher on the lower-ranked schools.”

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She now has three offers in hand after the end of the on-campus recruiting cycle in her second year, all of which meet her salary expectations.

It is not an isolated experience. Multinational companies returned to health surprisingly quickly, and while that has not translated into widespread hiring, MBA graduates have not been as severely affected as might have been expected.

“It is a more robust recruiting environment than during the past two years,” says Jana Kierstead, managing director of MBA career and professional development at Harvard Business School. “We’ve seen recruiters who had reduced their on-campus activity increase [it] again, and we’ve seen recruiters who had stepped away from campus return.”

But business school career services have not relaxed. The financial crisis brought hiring to a halt and forced them to pursue employers aggressively and tap their networks of alumni more vigorously than at any time in the decade.

That anxiety for their students (and for the schools’ statistics) is still in evidence, even if the job market is better. Pulin Sanghvi, director of the Career Management Center at Stanford Graduate School of Business, says several factors have shaped innovation in aiding students’ jobs searches.

First is the uncertain economy. Second, students are considering a broader range of careers and companies, with jobs in government and at non-profits acquiring cachet. Third, technology helps gather data to ease matchmaking between students, alumni and companies.

Sanghvi compares his office’s efforts to those of eHarmony, the dating website that gathers detailed information on its members to match them with their potential partners.

“You don’t know which alumnus is going to be really helpful to you. Now, because we’re in the position where we’re capturing lots of information on our students and we’re also capturing lots of information on our alumni, we can almost become eHarmony between them. We can help create connections between them or create introductions where we can be confident that something good will come out of that connection,” he says.

At Harvard, Kirstead has been beefing up her support for students’ “network-based” jobs searches, and today’s students are benefiting from the increased investment in support made as the crisis approached.

“My dean pulled me aside in February-March of 2008 and said, ‘I’m a little worried about the market. Could you put together a plan for what you’d do if the bottom fell out?’ We grew that programme during the crisis – students really needed more individual support because the on-campus job search wasn’t what it was.”

Jackie Wilbur, head of career development at MIT Sloan, says: “We probably relied even more heavily on our alumni [in recent months] than we have in the past.”

In terms of job destinations, it is clear that Wall Street is hiring again, albeit not at pre-crisis levels. Although investment banking has returned, opportunities to work in other areas of finance are more easily found.

Goldman Sachs says it is hiring about the same number of MBA graduates as a year ago, but it has sharply increased its recruitment of MBAs for wealth management positions.

Stacie Sasaki-Glass, head of campus recruiting at Pimco, the California-based asset manager, worked for investment banks in the same position and so has a broad perspective on changes in recruitment across the industry.

She says the deep freeze in investment banking was short-lived and the banks were forced to adjust with a “fairly large” intake from the summer intern classes of 2010. But she adds Pimco, which has weathered the crisis well, has “significantly increased our MBA hiring this year”, including attracting some students who might have opted for traditional Wall Street roles. “I think the students on campus who are looking at traditional sales and trading roles in investment banking will find a pretty interesting fit here,” she says.

At Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, New Hampshire, Rebecca Joffrey, director of career education and innovation, says her school looks to make connections with more non-US multinational companies.

“The global growth means we need to reach out more to companies who are looking globally. We have to work hard to get some of the recruiters back who have pulled out,” she says, noting that six students last year went to Samsung, the technology company, in South Korea.

That increased international focus is not a direct result of the recession, according to the schools, but a secular shift that has been coming for several years. Whatever the ups and downs of different industries and the US jobs market, it is one trend that is likely to continue.

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