Feature of the Week

June 9, 2013 11:30 pm

MBAs find that slowly does it in the jobs race

Ferguson illustration

Tech companies are in, investment banks are out. Luxury goods retailers: yes. Far-flung locations: you bet. No job yet? No problem. Move to Silicon Valley (or New York’s “Silicon Alley” or even east London’s “Silicon Roundabout”) and join a start-up. Better yet, launch your own company.

Whatever you do, do not take just any job. Make sure it is the right fit.

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As the world economy slogs along, this year’s graduating MBA class faces a much improved job market compared with recent years. According to the MBA Career Services Council, 67 per cent of schools report that full-time job postings have increased compared with the same time last year. While most schools do not publish their employment data until at least four months after graduation, career counsellors forecast this year’s figures will be better than last and markedly superior to 2009, when business students entered the job market with unemployment at a 16-year high.

Back then many new graduates took the first job offers that came their way. Now many students feel they can afford to be choosy. “There’s a much higher degree of comfort [about] graduating without having a job,” says Kristen Fitzpatrick, senior director at Harvard Business School’s career and professional development office.

Try before you buy

As competition for top MBA talent increases, more companies are seeking to convert their student summer interns into full-time hires.

She estimates that about 15 per cent of Harvard MBAs who earned their diploma last month have not yet secured employment. Some have turned down multiple offers as they wait for the right one. Others plan to move to the San Francisco Bay area and will find a job when they get there. “The students are so calm. They’re not panicked to grab just any job,” she says.

Most newly minted MBAs have never worked in boom times. Many graduated from university in 2007 or 2008, as the global economy was unravelling. They were either casualties of corporate cuts or kept their jobs only to see perks and bonuses dissolve and their workloads increase.

“They’ve been working through such a period of uncertainty that it’s opened their eyes to what’s important in a job,” says Ms Fitzpatrick. “They feel that eventually things will fall into place and they are not willing to compromise.”

But most career counsellors are not breathing a sigh of relief just yet. About 60 per cent of the business school class of 2013 received an offer of 
employment before graduation, according to a recent survey published by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC). This is comparable to last year and significantly higher than five years ago, but still far off the heady days of 2005.

“Depending on who you talk to, students are either worried or they’re flush with offers,” says Mary Carey, director of the career development centre at Insead.

Last month the centre ran two career strategy groups: one called “Stuck on search” for those students who had not landed their dream job, and another called “Managing multiple offers” for those trying to decide which offer to take. More students attended the former group, but the margin was slim. “The mood on campus is generally hopeful, but there is still some caution out there,” says Ms Carey.

According to the GMAC survey, the most popular industries for graduates this year are products and services, finance and accounting, and consulting – all perennial favourites among MBAs. Technology and healthcare also had a strong showing this recruiting season.

Fewer graduates are heading to Wall Street as investment banks have trimmed their ranks. “The feedback we’ve had from the banks is that the number of applications is down slightly but the number of positions is down dramatically,” says Ms Carey. In 2011, 23 per cent of Insead MBAs went into the banking sector; of the 2012 December graduating class this figure fell to 14 per cent.

Amazon, Facebook and Google were some of this year’s biggest recruiters. Luxury goods retailers also recruited more heavily than in past years.

In addition to blue-chip tech companies, New York-based tech start-ups gained an increasing share of attention among MBA graduates, says Regina Resnick, associate dean of the career management centre at Columbia Business School.

“It’s a transformative time in the New York economy,” she says. “There’s an excitement that’s reminiscent of [the dotcom boom] in 1999 and 2000 in Silicon Valley and Silicon Alley. But this time there is a sense that this is here to stay.”

Ms Resnick is guardedly optimistic about this year’s numbers. “Students are landing in jobs that they’re very excited about. It’s a markedly different world from 2009, but we’re not taking anything for granted.”

The economic slowdown has led to a more fragmented recruitment market: the model of a summer internship that leads to a full-time job offer still exists, but more companies are using a just-in-time hiring strategy. As a result, students are prepared to consider a range of opportunities in different industries and geographic locations in search of a job that matches their individual interests and skills.

People are increasingly willing to go anywhere for the right job, according to Amber Wigmore Alvarez, director of career advising at IE. “Students are open to mobility, more so than in the past,” she says.

Fiona Sandford, director of career services at London Business School, has observed “less of a lemming effect” with this year’s graduating class. “Students who want finance still want it with a passion, but there are fewer of those than in past years,” she says. “Pre-Lehman there was this idea of ‘I am clever therefore I can only work for a big-name, well-known organisation because that’s where clever people go.’ Now there’s an awful lot more thought.”

. . .

This may be in part because this crop of graduates has grown up in an era of psychometric testing, tests that include personality profiles, motivation questionnaires and ability assessments.

“This generation of students is more sophisticated in terms of their self-awareness,” says Pamela Mittman, assistant dean of career services and leadership development at NYU Stern.

“They’ve been encouraged and given flexibility to figure out what their strengths, values and interests are. There’s not a pack mentality.”

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