Learning to make shorter work of career changes

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We live in a fast-moving world. People change jobs, houses and relationships more quickly than they used to; they even eat on the run. Now, they are finishing their MBAs in less time too.

Yet, surprisingly, the drive towards shorter MBAs has come not from the US, that fast-food nation, but Europe, home of the long lunch. MBA degrees still stretch over two years in the US compared with a year or 18 months in Europe.

The relative merits of longer and shorter full time courses are hotly debated in academic circles with regional rivalries fuelling the debate. Yet, now one of the top North American universities has broken ranks. The Richard Ivey School of Business in Canada plans to convert its MBA programme into a one-year curriculum. The academic consensus is that other North American universities will follow suit.

Larry Wynant, associate dean of programmes at Ivey, says the decision came only after extensive market research. There are two types of MBA student, he says: the career enhancer and the career changer.

Career enhancers tend to be in high-flying jobs already and are looking to improve their performance so they can get ahead. This is the market Ivey has decided to target with its one-year course.

“We decided to tailor our MBA to people who were in a fast-track position in their lives and wanted to leverage an existing skillset. It was a business decision based on focus because it’s hard to have a business that aims at a huge range of customers,” he says. “It enables us to have a tighter curriculum, a more focused career management group and to target a narrow range of employers.”

Career changers, on the other hand, want personal development and direction out of an MBA. These students may benefit from the longer course that most North American universities still offer. “These are the people thinking: ‘Hey, you know what? This is not the path I want to be on’,” says Daphne Atkinson, vice-president for industry relations at the Graduate Management Admissions Council, an umbrella group for business universities in the US. “These people may well gain from a longer MBA course.”

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the Association of MBAs in Britain, says: “What you lose in a shorter course is thinking time and practice at applying the skills back in the workplace. Quality becomes important.”

The ultimate decision as to whether shorter courses can work lies with employers. If they get what they need from students on a one-year programme, they are more likely to accept them. Ms Atkinson says one of the advantages of longer MBAs is that they tend to include a three-month internship with a company.

“Employers get to see the students doing real work with colleagues; students get to apply what they’ve learned. Students may even go back to school after the internship with a new job to start at the end of the course,” says Ms Atkinson.

“For students it doesn’t get much better than that.”

However, Mr Wynant said the reluctance of employers to sponsor employees for two or three years out of the office was a big factor behind its decision to switch to the one-year degree.

“We became increasingly concerned that the employer market may not be as receptive to career-change people as it used to be.

“Thirty years ago, a lot of companies would have been willing to put employees on programmes, cross-train or rotate them in jobs and generally give them opportunities. Now we think that traditional machine has diminished.”

This makes the expense of a longer degree more important. With more students paying for themselves to study an MBA, a course that costs as much as £30,000 a year in fees alone is affordable to only the wealthy few. Factor in the costs of a reluctant spouse who may be forced to move, and the cost of living, and the economic advantage of a shorter degree is clear.

“We talked to alumni about their prospects and concerns and found that the opportunity costs of taking two years out of the workforce were just too substantial for a lot of people,” says Mr Wynant.

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