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Despite high levels of unemployment, demand for top- flight MBA students is at a premium and students at leading business schools are being courted by blue-chip companies as never before.

While some second-tier business schools are finding it harder to place students, at top programmes there is growing recruitment competition. As a result, some companies are starting the MBA hiring process even before business school students take their first steps into the classroom.

At Deloitte Consulting LLP incoming MBAs apply to join a consulting immersion weekend that is held a month before school starts. The company says it is a chance for several hundred students to spend a weekend learning about the industry. While Deloitte foots the bill – meals, transport and hotels – it also gets early access to the newest crop of talent.

The Deloitte Consulting immersion programme, launched in 2010, is already a success. The programme helps the company to steal a march on its rivals, many of which launch events once the school year starts.

“Getting in earlier is critical,” says Chris Franck, a principal at Deloitte, who estimates the company has hired 450 MBAs worldwide from 40 schools for 2013.

When it comes to recruiting at top schools such as the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Harvard Business School, companies are rolling out the red carpet long before on-campus interviews take place. Many are going beyond the first semester in-person interviews, a staple of on-campus recruiting, and working with careers offices to make early connections via one-of-a-kind sponsorship opportunities and smaller gatherings, says Lisa Feldman, executive director of MBA career management at the University of California Berkeley Haas School of Business. For many companies, she says: “It’s important to work hard in order to find students that find them [the company] interesting.”

Other consultancies are ramping up their hiring and employ more than a third of MBA graduates at some of the top business schools. At Booth, for example, 30.5 per cent of 2012 graduates work in consulting compared with 26.9 per cent in 2010.

Companies are also discovering that today’s MBA students have different objectives from those of five years ago. Many now use business school as a launching pad for their own start-ups, while others look to join smaller companies including non-profits. Some students hold out for jobs at companies that do not recruit on campus as they cannot predict their hiring needs a year in advance.

“Many of these students are also considering jobs in the public sector or hedge funds – the choices students have today are much greater than before,” says Mel Wolfgang, BCG’s partner in charge of recruiting for the region. BCG has increased its hiring in each of the past four years throughout the Americas, making it even more important for the group to appear on campus, he adds.

Informal meetings are also becoming more popular as a recruitment tool. Johnson & Johnson recently sponsored a dinner to discuss global opportunities for about 100 Cornell University international MBAs who plan to work outside the US on graduation.

“This year, we invested a lot more during orientation week,” says Reshma Zukowski, the company’s director of university relations.

Maintaining continuous relationships with the schools is key. “We assign a consultant basically to go and live on campus full-time for the fall and to spend all day and every day there over the course of recruiting,” adds Mr Franck. While at J&J at least one of its recruiters visits about 40 top business schools 30 times a year, making the recruiting process smoother.

But these additional recruiting opportunities come with a cost. While companies are reluctant to reveal numbers, more than 70 per cent of companies around the world expect recruiting costs to increase this year, according to a Graduate Management Admissions Council survey of more than 1,000 recruiters.

Companies spend about $10,000 to $20,000 on recruiting per MBA hire, says Jack Gainer chief executive of MBA Focus, a US-based online recruiting platform for MBAs, who works with 80 large companies. Sponsoring a club event or a dinner, for example, can easily run to more than $3,000, per company, adds Ms Feldman.

Many companies later return to campus for presentations. Last month, BCG flew 30 consultants from all over the world to a three-hour corporate presentation for several hundred Wharton students. The event allowed students to break into small groups to speak to consultants.

“We just fly in and land on campus for the night,” says Mr Wolfgang. BCG holds between four and seven recruiting events at selected schools each autumn.

While co-ordinating recruiting efforts can take its toll on even the most recognisable names, companies with less brand recognition and smaller budgets have a more difficult time. Without the resources to invest in pre-interview schmoozing, campus interviews can be a waste of time, says Gail Jacobs, director of worldwide talent sourcing for Sensata Technologies, a parts manufacturer.

In the past two years, she has augmented the on-campus recruiting process by using LinkedIn and a resume search tool from MBA Focus to correspond with standout candidates individually.

“One of the hardest things is just making contact,” says Ms Jacobs.

She recruits from schools such as Shanghai’s Fudan University and MIT Sloan School of Management. But she accepts it is worth jumping through hoops in order to vet candidates and make connections.

“It makes sense to make the trip and meet them face-to-face,” she adds.

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