The financial district in Toronto

Many MBA students preparing to graduate this year have been labelled unlucky for finishing their degrees just in time to enter a depressed job market.

But for those who chose Canadian business schools the prospects of landing work are more optimistic.

So far Canada has largely bucked the trend that has seen hiring levels worldwide plummet this year, especially in the financial sector. Overall job numbers are down, but Canada’s biggest banks are hiring and its financial sector has not seen its job market falter like that of the US.

In the US, business schools report as much as a 50 per cent drop in financial sector hiring, in part due to the disappearance of groups such as Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers. However, in Canada, banks describe the current climate as a growth opportunity and are busy plucking top talent from international competitors.

“It’s a tough market,” says Joseph Palumbo, executive director of the career development centre at York University’s Schulich School of Business in Toronto, where typically half of MBA graduates enter finance jobs. “But Canadian banks are doing better. They’re saying ‘This is great, we’re picking up great talent’.”

Canadian banks have not escaped the turmoil and all have taken significant writedowns on their exposure to toxic securities. But their value has suffered less than their US counterparts and none have suspended their dividend. The World Economic Forum last year declared Canada’s banking system to be the soundest in the world.

Most Canadian business schools so far report a drop of between five and 15 per cent in hiring from a strong 2008, which they say puts them at about 2005 levels. True numbers will not emerge until September, when schools track progress three months after graduation.

All the big Canadian banks and overseas banks who operate in Canada have maintained their campus recruitment programmes, according to David Edwards, director of the business career centre at Queen’s School of Business in Ontario.

“All of them came back this year and they’re all coming back again this fall,” he says.

The banks say their overall hiring levels remain consistent, with some changes to where those new hires are headed.

“People are often surprised that we’re continuing to hire at the same levels as we did two or three years ago,” says Leslie Quinlan, vice-president of talent management at Toronto-Dominion Bank. “In some groups we’re filling more positions, like wealth management, investment advisers and financial planners.”

That reflects the general approach throughout the banking sector.

“We didn’t even discuss [our hiring intentions] with regards to that being a source of reduction,” says Rose Patten, senior executive vice-president and head of human resources at Bank of Montreal (BMO).

She adds that she has seen “enormous accessibility to experienced people coming out of the US looking to come into Canada”.

Toronto-Dominion is continuing to run its associate programme, which each year takes 250 applicants from MBA programmes and business undergraduate degrees on eight to 24-month rotations through various departments.

Although Canadian banks describe themselves as being in a growth mode, not all of that growth will benefit recent graduates. Banks in Canada are targeting senior-level staff outside the country who have been laid-off or are unhappy with reduced bonuses and other cuts.

BMO has hired senior staff from Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, UBS, Wachovia and Bear Stearns.

But even with the competition from international recruits, Canadian MBA graduates are finding jobs in the financial sector.

“In Canada we’ve not seen any firms drop their offers,” says Sharon Irwin-Foulon, director, career management at the University of Western Ontario’s Richard Ivey School of Business, where about 30 per cent of MBA students typically head into the finance sector.

However, “it requires more intestinal fortitude now to go into the finance sector than it did two years ago”, she says.

The same optimism found in Canada is more difficult to come across in the US, where finance sector jobs have been hard to come by.

“All in all it’s rough,” says Kip Harrell, the US-based president of the MBA Career Services Council.”

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