Even in a gloomy employment market, Tracy Liu, at Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business and Management in California, landed her “dream internship” with the Environmental Defense Fund. Ms Liu, 26, credits winning the position to a direct referral from her school’s career counsellor.

“In this downturn, it has to be a joint effort. It’s up to the student to be extra aggressive but direct referrals from the career office give you a warm lead – it’s another person helping you, supporting you and putting in a good word,” she says.

At a time when many companies have cut recruiting budgets, some MBA career counsellors are becoming de facto headhunters helping students secure jobs and internships. They place students’ CVs directly in the hands of time-poor hiring managers who wince at sifting through hundreds of applications for one position. The approach, which involves counsellors working one-on-one with students and networking with companies, is a departure from traditional on-campus recruiting and job fairs.

The direct referral process varies from school to school.

However, in essence, at the beginning of the academic year, a career counsellor works with a student to understand their professional goals, geographic preferences, target companies, experience and any special skills he or she might have. Simultaneously, corporate relations managers from the school work with prospective employers to discover their hiring needs for the coming year. As the recruiting season heats up, the career counsellor and the corporate relations manager work together to discover where they can match qualified students with job openings. The school then contacts the company with a handful of carefully selected candidates.

Nicole Hall, president of the MBA Career Services Council and executive director of career services at Graziadio, describes it as a personalised approach. She estimates that about 20 per cent of last year’s job placements at Graziadio came from direct referrals. “We definitely feel much more like a headhunter,” she says.

“During the economic downturn, we have become more fluid and flexible about how we pursue our employer connections and we have created a closer link between those relationships and how our career counsellors prep and profile our candidates.”

In spite of signs that the employment prospects for newly minted business school graduates are improving, most MBA career advisers say the job market remains difficult. According to a survey earlier this year by the Graduate Management Admission Council, about 55 per cent of corporate recruiters planned to hire new MBAs in 2010, reversing a sharp drop in 2009, although the number of new hires per company declined slightly.

The direct referral approach is most common at smaller, lesser-known programmes. Stig Lanesskog, associate dean for the MBA programme at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, which has about 100 students per class, estimates that about a third of last year’s class found jobs through direct referrals.

“As the economy has slowed, it is a big investment in time and resources for companies to visit campus. As a result, companies have become very narrow about their target schools,” says Mr Lanesskog. “We have a small to mid-sized MBA programme, so we want to eliminate as many barriers as possible, even if we don’t have the depth that a bigger school might.”

Jim Dixey, director of career management at Texas A&M’s Mays Business School, says direct referrals save time for corporate recruiters. “Companies don’t want to see 1,000 résumés. They don’t want to hear that the students are all great or equally talented. It’s hogwash. They say: ‘Send me the people that will help me.’ We look at our students and, based on what that company needs, give them legitimate, viable candidates.”

But the process sometimes involves difficult conversations. Students can have aspirations beyond their capabilities or unrealistic expectations of their earning potential. Mr Dixey advocates an honest approach. “We tell them: ‘Here are your skills, here are your options and here’s what you’re worth based on what the market is paying.’”

It is a delicate balance for a school to ensure its current crop of students land happily but also to maintain a relationship with those prospective employers for future graduating classes. The school must be confident it is proposing well-qualified students who will consider the job if offered.

Direct referrals are especially suited to small and mid-sized businesses, say MBA career counsellors. These companies often do not have the resources to commit to on-campus recruiting or they have an inconsistent hiring process.

K imberly-Clark, the consumer products group that has its headquarters in Dallas, for instance, does not regularly recruit MBAs. But, according to Phil Carey, senior manager, when there is a position available that would be suited to an MBA candidate, “direct referrals are, from my perspective, the only way to recruit”.

“It’s easier to hone in on what you’re looking for,” he says. “I tell the career services person: ‘I’m looking for leadership potential and financial analysis skills. Give me your top six or seven people.’ Then I contact them directly. It’s a very targeted approach and it gives me a better chance of finding what I am looking for.”

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