This time last year it looked as if the MBA jobs market might be facing a crisis every bit as bad as the early years of the millennium, in the wake of the dotcom implosion and 9/11. But all the indications are that, while there’s certainly no room for complacency, the outlook for business school graduates is currently much better than had been expected.
The latest Corporate Recruiters Survey, conducted by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC) and the MBA Career Services Council, questioned nearly 2,000 companies worldwide and found that 55% were planning to hire MBAs, up from 50% in 2009. The most buoyant industries for MBAs were healthcare and pharmaceuticals, where 80% of firms were planning to recruit, and consulting, where 73% intended to hire business school alumni. The research echoes a wider study of management and professional employment carried out by recruitment specialist Antal International. Its latest ‘Global Snapshot’ interviewed more than 9,600 employers across 55 countries and found hiring levels up from 54% at the beginning of 2010 to 55% and anticipated to rise to 58% in the fourth quarter. The most active sectors were banking, engineering and fmcg.
However, global figures such as these do not tell the whole story. Although the overall number of opportunities for MBAs is roughly back to the levels we saw before the downturn, the market has changed dramatically in the past two years.
One of the most significant ways in which the market has shifted in the past two years is its geographical focus. Traditionally the US and Europe have accounted for the majority of ‘classic’ MBA roles with large banks, companies or consultancies, but now less obvious destinations such as Australia and Canada are giving them a run for their money. “Although Australia didn’t slide into recession last year, there was a definite downturn in recruitment,” says Anna Parkin of Melbourne Business School. “But this year we’ve got recruiters chasing us asking when they can take on interns and get an early look at next year’s graduates.” The Desautels Faculty of Management at McGill University, Montreal, is reporting a similar experience, in an economy much brighter than its US counterpart. “We’ve seen a 20% increase in job postings and campus interviews,” says Marie-José Beaudin, director of its career services. “Well over 90% of the recent MBA graduating class have found positions, with salaries that are up $10,000 on last year. Companies are on the campus to hire, not just here for brand building.”
The fastest-growing markets appear to be in the BRICs and N-11 countries. “Historically we’ve placed around three-quarters of our MBA graduates in Europe,” says Valérie Gauthier, associate dean at one of the continent’s top schools, HEC Paris. “However this year that’s dropped because we’ve seen a notable upswing in placements in countries across Asia and the Pacific Rim.” INSEAD has seen a similar switch in emphasis with its largest increase in jobs for graduates occurring in Africa and Latin America. And at Warwick Business School the new economic tigers of Asia now account for as much as a quarter of all post-MBA jobs.
This experience has been mirrored at many of the more international US schools. According to Becky Joffrey of the Tuck School in New Hampshire, more and more Fortune 500 companies are now hiring international MBA graduates, not for head office roles in the US or Europe but to return to their own countries. “Corporate America has got the message that global growth requires talent with in-depth knowledge of the language, customs and geography of other parts of the world,” she says. She points to a student recruited by Cargill to run its Indian operations out of Singapore and two who joined Samsung to train in South Korea and then return to their native countries of Israel and India.
Joffrey’s analysis of the jobs market is largely confirmed by Antal’s group managing director, Graeme Read. “While the hiring of managers and professionals is up overall from 53% to 54% since January, it now stands at 65% in Brazil, 72% in China and 73% in India. One of the main reasons for this is the move away from the conventional expatriate model. Until recently many developing countries accepted the need to import management expertise from the West. Now they want to take control themselves, which has led to a focus on locally born professionals who have trained at a recognised business school. Consequently in countries like China and India, the ‘returner’ is becoming one of the most sought-after commodities in the talent market.”
Wherever MBAs are finding jobs, one of the significant factors behind their success has been a much more practical approach to the jobs market by career services departments. Learning from the downturn of 2001/2002, careers departments have forged links with a wide range of potential employers, tapped into the natural resources of their alumni networks and made sure that new graduates are properly trained in presentation, interview and self-marketing techniques. Warwick Business School’s recruitment manager, Leon Richards, says: “Even at the height of the crisis when they had no specific jobs, we managed to persuade employers to keep up their relationships with us for branding purposes. That’s really paid off as the market has improved.”
McGill-Desautels has focused on organising mentoring programs and making the most of strong corporate ties in oil and gas, mining, health care and pharmaceuticals, and even video gaming and multimedia. “It is one-on-one career services that make the difference,” says Beaudin. “We explore the professional interests and ambitions of our graduates to help align their career strategy and try to match them with mentors in the industries they want to work in.”
Another clear example of the value of strong relationships with potential employers can be seen at the ESMT School in Berlin. Here 91% of the class of 2009 found a job within three months of graduation and just over half joined one of the 25 companies that founded the school in 2002 and that remain closely involved in its day-to-day work. The fact that the German economy is outperforming other European markets and enjoying a lower unemployment rate is not lost on the school’s associate dean, Professor Jörg Rocholl. “There is a very high demand for highly qualified managers in Germany these days,” he explains, “and this trend is likely to continue and even intensify.”
This is great news for business school students who are looking to study or work locally after graduation.
However it’s not just careers departments that have adopted a pragmatic approach to tackle a highly competitive jobs market. So have individual MBAs. “In the past, many students saw a job with a big corporate as the main prize,” says Joe Li Puma of the EM Lyon Business School in France, “but now there’s much more interest in the SME market. And that in turn is allowing graduates to apply the entrepreneurial skills we focus on here from their very first day with a new employer.”
What is clear in a recovering but still not yet secure employment market is that potential hirers are much more demanding than in the past. “The MBA is a great supplement to experience, but it’s no substitute for it,” says Antal’s Read. Anticipating this development, many schools have been adjusting the focus of their programmes to ensure that their graduates can provide a measurable contribution to any new employer right from day one.
“We recognised that in this climate new MBAs need to hit the ground running and consequently worked to make our leadership development program as directly relevant as possible,” says HEC’s Gauthier. “As a result we’ve actually seen our graduates find more senior management positions than usual on markedly higher reward packages.”
With employers likely to hold the balance of power for some time to come, choosing the most relevant programme, identifying the most supportive school and thinking outside the traditional investment banking/strategy consultancy box may be the key to finding that all-important post-graduation job.