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With healthcare reform on the agenda in the US and the UK, business school students are showing much more interest in an industry that until a few years ago attracted only small numbers of MBAs.

The increased interest comes at a time when the job market remains shaky and sectors such as finance are still recovering from the credit crisis and the recession. Healthcare, say career counsellors, is a growth industry that offers business graduates opportunities to solve complex challenges, work toward the public good and draw a substantial salary.

Policymakers in countries around the world are dealing with the problems of rising healthcare costs as well as an increasingly older population. President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul aims to expand health insurance to cover millions of uninsured Americans while curbing costs. And in the UK, David Cameron, the prime minister, has pledged to make fundamental changes to the National Health Service, the state-run healthcare system.

“Healthcare reform is one of the catalysts but [MBA interest] started before that,” says George Telthorst, director of the Center for the Business of Life Sciences at Indiana’s Kelley School of Business. “Healthcare is a social good and I think a lot of young MBAs realise they can do good but also have a more stable career in the future.”

Pharmaceuticals, healthcare consultancies and insurers have augmented their full-time recruiting activities on campuses. A recent survey by the MBA Career Services Council says schools saw an increase of nearly 40 per cent in hiring by pharmaceutical, biotech and healthcare companies.

The numbers are still relatively small but career counsellors expect strong growth. At Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, for instance, 33 MBAs out of a class of 426 took jobs in the healthcare industry last year, compared with a handful five years ago. At Kelley, 17 MBAs took jobs in healthcare last year, compared with 2008 when six MBAs secured jobs in the sector.

As healthcare companies “determine they need to take a more business-orientated approach to their own growth”, the numbers are sure to climb, says Peter Giulioni, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business MBA career resource centre. The growth is also coming from students, he says. “Is it simply MBAs saying: ‘I need a job so I’ll take healthcare?’ I don’t think so. They understand that over the next 25 years healthcare is going to be a boom industry,” he says.

Most jobs for MBAs in healthcare are in the functional areas of companies, such as marketing, operations, technology, strategy and finance. But lately, newly minted MBAs are entering the industry in novel ways, according to J.J. Cutler, deputy vice-dean of MBA admissions, financial aid and career management at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. “We are seeing more people who are going into healthcare investing, healthcare private equity, healthcare venture capital or who want to start a healthcare business or go work for a hospital or work on the policy side.”

This crop of MBAs’ desire to pursue socially-minded careers is another reason for the surge in interest in healthcare, he says.

“This generation is different. It has a much greater social change agenda than past generations.”

Rob Brown, chief marketing officer at Eli Lilly, one of the biggest pharmaceuticals groups in the world, says MBA recruiting at the company has remained steady. “Healthcare is a space where students like the idea. It’s a mix of the business side, with a real desire to help.”

Business schools with specialised healthcare programmes have recently seen a marked rise in applicants.

The reason, says Kevin Schulman, professor of medicine and business administration at Fuqua, is that changes within the field of medicine and healthcare now require workers to have general management skills.

“The things you needed to be successful in healthcare in the past were strong operational skills.

“But the things you need to be successful going forward are analytic skills, an understanding of strategy and a great grasp of technology and all its applications.

“You can’t just be an excellent clinician and assume you’ll have a leadership role,” he says.

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