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Business schools are keeping their fingers crossed that the credit squeeze affecting markets has not caused severe damage to the MBA recruitment scene, even in the financial sector.

The September 2007 round of full-time recruitment – for MBA programme participants graduating this year – generally went well, with descriptions such as “surprisingly robust” coming from the schools’ careers services staff.

But there is a sense of nervousness when it comes to predicting the final outcome of the September round as the on-campus presentations and opportunities have to be turned into real job offers, some of which may not be made until the following year.

And there are concerns, too, over whether the effects of the credit squeeze could spread beyond the financial sector and into the general economy, which may take the wind out of MBA recruiters’ sails.

“The career horizon is bright, but everyone needs to keep their eye on the storm clouds,” says Joseph Palumbo, executive director of the career development centre at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto.

At Columbia Business School in New York, the main message from Regina Resnick, managing director of the school’s career management centre, is cautious optimism.

“We are being very attentive to the marketplace and sensitive to what is going on,” she says. “We are continuing to reach out aggressively to [an ever wider range of] recruiters, and are reminding students not to put all their efforts into just one market but to look for opportunities across a range of industries and functions.”

In Europe, Diane Morgan, director of career services at London Business School, says she detected a general feeling of nervousness in September and October: there were some indications that students were prepared to accept an offer earlier than usual. On the other hand, LBS had more company recruiters on campus than ever, “so the nervousness felt by everyone was not necessarily matched by a decrease in opportunities”, says Ms Morgan.

Companies’ longer-term recruitment concerns are still a priority, irrespective of the events of July and August. “There is a recognition that these are associate-level programmes that are recruiting leaders of the future,” she says.

There remains, too, a shortage of leadership within organisations, says Mr Palumbo, and this puts a premium on MBAs with five to 10 years of experience who can be leaders straight away. He adds that companies are struggling to find the right people, and as a result behaved quite differently last year: “They are getting more aggressive, investing more in their brand on campus, trying to get here sooner and to recruit in more innovative ways.”

Some of the largest employers turned up on campus in the third week of August, the earliest ever, and before even the students had arrived, says Mr Palumbo.

One sector that was continuing to show a strong interest in MBA recruitment during the September round was consulting, says Ms Resnick at Columbia. There were also more consumer packaged-goods companies on campus compared with the previous year, and more companies offering marketing opportunities.

At New York University’s Leonard N. Stern School of Business, there were growing opportunities in strategic consulting at the top firms, according to Pamela Mittman, assistant dean of career services. There was also growth in a variety of industries with which NYU Stern has an advantage because of its location, such as retail and luxury, and media and entertainment.

“We have been building relationships with the media industry for some time – but some of the retail and luxury and technology recruiters were new [to the full-time recruitment round],” says Ms Mittman. The school has been working hard at building links with these sectors, she says, while the students themselves have been doing a “terrific job” building relationships with the retail sector.

LBS, too, saw a broadening of interest from the consultancy sector, with smaller, specialist firms wanting to engage with the school through jobs postings or careers fairs, complementing the regular presence of the Big Four and the mid-sized firms.

In industry, there has been a greater diversity of companies engaging with LBS, says David Morris, business development manager in the careers services department. Nike, the US sports shoes and apparel group, came to the school for the first time last year, hiring MBAs for its new European management programme.

Manufacturing also put in “a bit of a comeback”, says Ms Morgan, with companies such as Danaher, the diversified US technology products company, and Whirlpool, the US white goods company, coming to the school. “We are seeing interest on the student side in general management posts at companies making tangible products,” she says, “and that is matched by the interest of the companies themselves [in recruiting MBAs]”.

In North America, healthcare organisations are starting to wake up to the need for MBA recruitment, says Mr Palumbo, following behind the pharmaceutical sector. Hospitals and medical businesses represent a huge opportunity for MBAs, he says.

Another fast-growing area for MBA recruitment in North America is related to sustainability, says Mr Palumbo. Interest in this was previously limited to sectors with a direct impact on the environment but this has spread to others such as banking and consulting, where advisers on sustainability are in demand.

The internship round can also provide indicators on the health of the MBA recruitment scene and the confidence of students. Ms Resnick says a very high percentage of second-year students came back from their internships with job offers. However, she adds, there is anecdotal evidence that the volatility of the markets convinced a number to accept the offers more quickly than normal – rather than going to more interviews later in the year.

The next pointers will emerge through February and March as the recruitment of this year’s interns is completed. Schools are reporting a normal, or even higher, level of interest from recruiters in booking slots for on-campus presentations or attending career fairs.

“There has been a significant increase in on-campus interviews over last year, and that is excluding all of the off-campus contacts arranged by less traditional recruiters,” says Ms Mittman at NYU Stern. “The students seem pleased and the recruiters seem exceptionally happy. One interviewed 26 students in one day, and said it would be happy to hire 22 of them, if it were able to extend that many offers.”

The big question for MBA recruitment over the coming months is posed by Mr Palumbo: “Will the slowdown spread from wholesale banking to other parts of banking and then to all other parts of the economy as credit gets tighter?”

If that were to happen soon, the recruiters that have been delaying making offers – whether through caution this year or because they prefer a “just-in-time” approach anyway – could decide not to hire at all.

Ms Mittman says some of the non-traditional recruiters that base their hiring on need will continue to make job offers in March and June anyway.

But she does not think the traditional recruiters – the investment banks, consulting and consumer packaged goods companies that determine their numbers quite early – will postpone their decisions.

“It may happen that recruiters will choose to limit the number they hire, then come back to recruit again,” says Ms Mittman. “We have seen that happen in years where there has been uncertainty. But so far there is no indication that they won’t hire as many as in the past. All of us are aware of what is happening in the markets, but we haven’t seen any effect on campus.”

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