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Despite eurozone gloom, 2011 was a pretty good year for MBA hiring. Insead and London Business School both published bumper employment data. And according to a poll by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, 74 per cent of employers plan to make MBA hires in 2012, up from 58 per cent in 2011. What these bullish statistics obscure, however, is just how hard Europe’s MBAs and business schools are working to keep the numbers positive.

The MBA job market in Europe has always been different. While many US companies run development programmes offering MBA hires the chance to be rotated through different divisions and groomed for senior management, this concept has never completely taken off in Europe. According to MBA-Exchange.com, which tracks these programmes globally, there are 163 such programmes running in the US but only 79 in Europe.

There are structural reasons for this difference, according to Bilal Ojjeh, the website’s founder. “European roles are less flexible [than the US]. If you are recruiting a manager for Italy, you need someone who speaks the language and understands the business culture.” But there are signs that European development programmes are on the wane. At a recent meeting of business school career-services staff organised by the MBA Careers Services Council in Berlin, participants agreed that the European MBA recruiting market was mutating.

“MBA hiring in Europe is becoming more like an experienced hire market than a development programme market,” says Derek Walker, head of careers at Oxford’s Saïd Business School. While companies are still running MBA hiring programmes they increasingly want to fill particular roles and achieve a quicker return on investment, he adds. “What MBAs have done before business school is becoming more significant because companies are looking for people who can hit the ground running.”

School size also plays a role. Most MBA classes in Europe remain small and employers are reluctant to send a team of senior staff on the road to interview a few prospects at each school. Even for top-ranked programmes, recruiters must decide which and how many schools to visit.

The upshot of this – for students and career services departments – is that career success requires an increasing amount of legwork. For students this means taking control of their careers, while career services face a different challenge – managing student expectations and ensuring students understand how much work and persistence may be needed.

Students also need to be realistic. Many look at employment data published by business schools and, seeing a clutch of graduates going to a particular company or sector, conclude that they too have a great chance. But they need to look closely at these statistics. At Insead, 127 MBAs out of about 1,000 graduates were hired by a single consulting firm (McKinsey) in 2010. Of these, however, nearly half were rehires. And at LBS, 36 per cent of the 2011 class went into consulting, but 27 per cent had come from consulting in the first place

What can students and career services staff do to improve their chances? Increasingly, career services are trying to shorten the odds by pushing students to think about their careers early on.

On the International MBA programme at IE Business School, Spain, students must complete a careers workbook, which includes writing a summary of professional intent, researching companies, and writing a CV and cover letter to secure a meeting with their career adviser.

“We show students how to manage their careers strategically,” says Amber Wigmore Alvarez, executive director of career services at IE. “These skills go far beyond a first job after business school – they are skills for life.”

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