December 20, 2010 12:10 am

Young ‘Silver scholars’ defy the sceptics

 
 

Most new university graduates are not qualified for their first job, according to Barry Nalebuff, a professor at the Yale School of Management.

“They don’t have the skills in finance, accounting, strategy, or organisational behaviour. As a result, there’s a huge amount of training that has to take place by the employers,” he says. “At the same time, no one is willing to hire an MBA who doesn’t have any work experience.”

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Therein lies the sweet spot for Silver Scholars, a three-year MBA programme at Yale SOM for newly minted college graduates. The students enter the programme straight out of university and spend their first year developing basic business skills. During the second year, they take part in a full-time internship at a company. Most do year-long stints, but some take two years and others do multiple internships at several companies. In the final year, students finish the MBA programme and take electives at the business school.

The programme was launched in 2001 to attract more non-traditional MBA candidates to the business school – those who majored in music or philosophy, rather than economics or finance – and “to create a new way of obtaining an MBA”, says Prof Nalebuff. Initially it was limited to Yale students, but recently the school has opened the application pool to everyone. Yale SOM, which has about 400 students, usually admits a handful of Silver Scholars each year; to date, 53 students have participated.

The programme is distinctive – both for the age of its candidates and for sandwiching an extended internship between academic years – but many top business schools around the US are also recruiting younger, less experienced candidates. The push for a younger student body is part of an effort to boost applications and head off competition for the best students from other graduate programmes, such as law and public policy, who generally do not have work experience requirements.

Stanford Graduate School of Business, for instance, admits students fresh from university. So, too, does Wharton. In 2007 Harvard Business School launched a deferred MBA admissions programme for undergraduate students, known as 2+2, which guarantees college students a place in a future HBS class, contingent upon graduation and the completion of two years of approved work experience.

Some in the business school community however are sceptical of schools that accept students straight from university; a lack of familiarity with the working world will mean many lessons and case study discussions are not as relevant.

Officials at SOM admit that recruiters can be somewhat sceptical when they first meet these relatively untested MBA graduates. Ivan Kerbel, careers director at Yale SOM says employers are particularly risk-averse in a difficult economy; there is a flight to the more tried-and-true model and many tend to require more experience in their candidates.

“Most traditional MBA recruiting organisations don’t have a set playbook for recruiting anything other than traditional full-time MBAs.”

But he adds that as a result, Silver Scholars students become more entrepreneurial about managing their job search. “These students get good at presenting their story to recruiters – explaining why they had an appetite for getting an MBA very early in their career.”

Ultimately the programme appears to have little negative impact on Silver Scholars’ job prospects: their placement and salary statistics are virtually indistinguishable from their traditional counterparts.

Dietmar Grimm, a manager at Redstone Strategy Group, Colorado, which advises foundations and non-profits, last year hired a Silver Scholars graduate. One reason for recruiting from the programme, he says, is the greater assurance that the candidate will take the job. Initial concerns about his hire’s “lack of experience” were soon dispelled, he adds.

Perhaps the biggest downside for the programme’s participants is the lack of continuity; they enter with one MBA class but graduate with another, which can diminish the cohesiveness of the MBA experience. However, it does allow Silver Scholars students to meet and get to know more students than they would otherwise have done, as well as graduate with an extensive professional network.

“We can’t have too many Silver Scholars otherwise it would affect the glue of the school,” says Prof Nalebuff. “In a large school it might not be worth it to run a programme for eight students, but in a school our size it creates a great mix.”

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