Q&A: Those MBA Job Blues Won't Last Long

Columbia's dean sees Wall Street staffing up next year

If you believe the dire predictions, the world will be flush with newly minted jobless MBAs come June. Now that U.S. financial giants and consulting firms are slashing jobs, it seems unlikely that 2002 graduates will be showered with $100,000-plus job offers in the way the past few classes of graduates were. But Meyer Feldberg, who in his 13 years as dean of Columbia Business School has established close ties with Wall Street's top brass, says there's still room for bright MBA grads in financial services and consulting. He believes that MBAs willing to look at Old Economy stalwarts can also find some plum assignments. He recently sat down with BusinessWeek's Jennifer Merritt to discuss the job outlook.

Q: Wall Street has always been a top destination for MBAs. Tell me about the relationship between Wall Street and B-schools.

A: It varies from school to school. We have been pretty consistent for the last 12 years, with more than 50% [of grads] going into finance. For all top schools, Wall Street finance and consulting have been probably 65% to 80% of the MBA recruiting business.

Q: Does being in New York figure into that trend?

A: Clearly, geography matters. Being in New York City, we are a subway ride away from all the firms. [Columbia has] 650 alums at Citigroup, 500 with J.P. Morgan Chase, 300 with Goldman Sachs, 300 with Morgan Stanley, and 200 at Lehman Brothers. What happens is...the companies at which you have enormous depth and seniority keep coming back to hire each year.

Q: How does that play into this year's hiring?

A: This is going to be a much more difficult year. Wall Street is not only retrenching in terms of hiring but actually has laid off people who were hired over the past two or three years. Also, firms say they are cutting the number of schools at which they recruit. I think they are going to stay closer to the schools with which they have had high success over the past 10, 15 years. The schools that will suffer most are [those] where firms have historically only hired half a dozen people or fewer.

Q: What should MBA grads expect from the job market?

A: At the moment, I understand close to 60% of our May graduates have job offers. I would say that in spite of the difficulty, we will still send between 45% and 50% of our graduating class into finance. Hiring in private wealth management and client services will probably be up, and investment banking will be down a bit.

Q: What are some good alternatives to finance and consulting jobs?

A: The industrial manufacturing and package-goods companies have seen an opening or a gap on the campuses, and they've come back with enthusiasm. [These companies] have now become global players themselves. That's one of the reasons they are able to attract the top students. Many of our business students are finding that the job opportunities are globally focused. They are in charge of managing a product line on a global basis, or they are in charge of managing a regional area of the world.

Q: How long will it be before Wall Street returns to its traditional hiring levels?

A: A year. Wall Street always worries when there is a downturn, and they cut back. [But financial firms] worry much more about not being staffed when the market turns up, because that's when you lose market share. So when the market starts to turn, you're going to see a nervous scramble, a desperate scramble, to bring in new talent so companies can take advantage of any upturn.

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