Engineering a Switch to Banking

An environmental engineer can make the transition fairly easy with an MBA degree, especially from a top B-school

Q: Is it possible for someone with an engineering background to jump ship and land a job in investment banking after graduating from business school? Can I get a decent i-banking job anywhere else besides New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston?

--A.N., Tarboro, N.C.

A: Scott Dinhofer at Concorde Group, a Wall Street recruiting firm, didn't need to think twice when we asked him if B-school could help catapult you into the world of investment banking. The answer is "an emphatic yes," he says bluntly. In fact, Dinhofer knows of an environmental engineer who took the career path that you're considering. At age 33, the engineer went back for his MBA and landed a corporate-finance job at a top investment bank right after graduation. He has already been promoted -- a year ahead of schedule.

Bottom line: Don't discount your experience as an engineer. You boast the quantitative and problem-solving skills that are routinely mentioned in job listings for investment bankers. Business school will help sharpen those abilities and give you a solid foundation in finance and accounting. "With an engineering background and an MBA from a top B-school, there's a strong likelihood that banks would hire him," says Joe Logan at the Pinnacle Group, an executive recruiter.

Note the word "top" in Logan's comment. Better start cramming now for your GMAT, the test you have to take to get into B-school. If you want to get noticed by investment banks, headhunters say, attending a well-respected MBA program is key. Many of the leading financial institutions recruit aggressively at select B-schools, often limiting their scope to the top 20 programs, says John Worth, director of career consulting at the University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.


  To figure out which school is right for you, start your research online by perusing BusinessWeek's exclusive rankings of MBA programs around the world. Each school's profile includes loads of information on admissions and recruitment, such as the median starting salary for grads and which employers hire the most students.

However, note that investment banks (among other sectors) appear to be scaling back hiring plans for 2002. At the University of Virginia's Darden school, No. 9 in BusinessWeek's rankings, interviewing by investment banks is down 56% from last year, according to Worth. That's not a big surprise, given the wave of layoffs sweeping through many Wall Street firms. In recent weeks, top-tier banks such as Credit Suisse First Boston and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter have announced plans to cut hundreds of investment bankers due to sluggish business activity. It could get uglier in coming weeks, insiders say.

No one can predict what the job market for investment bankers will look like in two or three years, when you're coming out of business school. But whatever the climate, here's something to ponder: Being unwilling to move to a metro area like New York or San Francisco will limit your options. You could certainly find regional banks and boutique firms to approach. But these employers often have small staffs and don't hire in bulk like many top institutions do.


  As a result, they don't frequent lots of B-school campuses to court MBA grads. It isn't impossible to land a job with one of these outfits, of course, but you'll have to do the legwork to find out which ones are hiring. A B-school's career-services office can help with this kind of search.

Before you dismiss the idea of moving to the big city and working for one of the top guns in corporate finance, think about your long-term goals. Many MBAs consider investment banking a launching pad for something else, says Darden's Worth. They put in grueling long hours for a few years, then parlay that experience into a six- or seven-figure gig as a chief operating officer, finance director, or even a CEO.

If that's an ambition of yours, working at a tony securities firm will probably yield more calls from headhunters than taking a job at a little-known regional player. You're already considering one career switch -- why not plan for another down the road?

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By Jennifer Gill in New York

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