When the Going Gets Tougher

The salad days for newly minted MBA's have wilted, but there are still jobs out there, as recruiting specialist Maury Hanigan explains

Compared with the way things were just a couple of years ago, the current job market for MBA grads stinks. So what will it look like two years from now, when the current generation of MBA applicants pick up their parchments and join the working world?

Not too bad, says recruiting expert Maury Hanigan. She should know: Her consulting firm, Hanigan Consulting Group, has worked with hundreds of corporations to design campus recruiting programs. She's also recently started a career-counseling firm, called First Jobs.

Hanigan took questions about the recruiting scene from audience members and from BusinessWeek Online's Jack Dierdorff and Brian Hindo during a live chat on June 26. An edited version of that discussion follows:

Q: What types of jobs are top MBAs landing today?


There are still jobs available in almost every sector, though there are far fewer than just two years ago. There is some hiring going on in investment banking. There's limited hiring in consulting, and the Fortune 500 are still doing some hiring. I think the dot-com industry is pretty much shut down. But there are limited opportunities in just about every other sector.

Q: What areas of the market are picking up? I've recently received some inquires from head hunters, so I think there is a slow upturn now.


It's a little early to tell one way or the other. The information that we have from corporations about the number of campuses they plan to visit in the fall, and the number of students they're planning to hire, show that both levels are significantly depressed. But some of the sectors -- pharmaceuticals, for example -- have not retrenched as much as financial services.

And different parts of the country seem to be rebounding at different rates. New York, which is obviously the center of the financial market, is still in a very soft economy. The Midwest seems to be showing more strength, and the West Coast is still slightly depressed.

Q: I will be enrolling in an MBA program this fall. What can I do, from a skill-set perspective, to improve my internship prospects?


The first thing, you have already done -- which is to be focused on that all-important internship. Many companies are hiring almost exclusively from their internship program, so while your first semester will be a little overwhelming in terms of adjusting to B-school, you should still be attending the company presentations and career events that are geared for second-year students and making all the contacts you can.

It's not so much a skill set that you need to work on as it is a network. Don't be afraid to introduce yourself to any company representative on campus and inquire about internship opportunities.

Q: I know quite a few MBAs who are spending their summer vacations without an internship. If a student can't find a summer position, how do you make the best use of summer?

A: There are several things you can and should do. The first is, line up as many informational interviews as you can with people in the industry...you want to pursue. The second is to spend as much of your time as you can doing something unique that has a business focus.

By "unique" I don't mean bungee jumping off some landmark, but bringing your business skills to a not-for-profit, or on a pro-bono basis working with a local business to create a marketing campaign or a better financial structure or banking relationship. You may need to work for income this summer, and all employers will understand that you may need to commit 40-plus hours a week to revenue generation. But have some accomplishment you can put on your resume that shows initiative.

Q: How are salaries for new MBAs this year?


Surprisingly, base salaries seem to be holding pretty firmly. The big change in compensation is in the signing bonuses and other cash compensation that was offered over the past few years. Signing bonuses, which were $15,000 to $20,000, may be down from zero dollars to $5,000. Relocation packages, which may have been a flat $10,000, may now be $2,000 to $3,000. But the base salaries seem to be holding consistent and not declining significantly.

Q: I know it's hard to predict the future, but for those of us who are entering school this fall, how do you view the job market for next summer's internships or the following year's job hunt?


If I could predict the market I would have sold short a couple years ago! However, the hiring market for MBAs lags the economy, generally by two years, because there are such long lead times to hiring MBAs.

Employers must commit to interview schedules in April, 18 months before students actually begin employment. So it takes several cycles for businesses to catch up to the economy. The business cycles we've seen in the past indicate that MBA hiring only stays depressed for two to three years, generally, and so someone entering school this fall will likely have pretty good opportunities a year from spring.

Q: What is the outlook for international students trying to find jobs in the U.S.?


Unfortunately, it's going to be very challenging for international students -- as it has been for the past five years. Traditionally, the biggest hirers of non-U.S. nationals were the consulting firms because they had the greatest need for global talent. The consulting firms are still very depressed...and consequently in their hiring, so the best prospects foreign students had are pretty much out of the market. That's not to say there are no opportunities, but they will definitely be the unique "onesies and twosies" hiring.

It's unlikely you will find an employer who is looking to hire 10 to 15 non-U.S. nationals. And, given the political mood of the country, you may find employers very hesitant to hire students who have only a student visa because it's unclear whether the government will be offering more permanent visas once the student visas expire.

Q: Based on your interaction with HR departments, is the MBA still as attractive as it was a couple of years ago?


Yes and no. It is still attractive because an MBA degree indicates that an individual is motivated, accomplished, and ambitious -- and those are very desirable qualities. And MBA schools function as tremendous sorting mechanisms. Because their admissions requirements are so stringent, they help employers sort through the individuals with the greatest potential.

All of those factors are still true, and they make MBAs valuable. The change that will cause employers to back off MBA hiring is the availability of other talent in the marketplace. Many employers were hiring MBAs because they needed readily available talent in a marketplace that had a talent shortage. Now employers are facing an abundance of talent and have multiple sources of new employees. So the benefits are still there, but the uniqueness of the talent is no longer.

Q: One of our audience members expresses frustration with the various Web-based job boards. Does that ring true to you?


That sounds very familiar from students and experienced people that I've talked to. It can be productive to apply through job boards, but it's almost the same return as mass-mailing resumes. An individual is going to be lost in a mountain of resumes, many of which may be completely unqualified for the position.

Employers who are looking through 2,000 resumes in response to a job posting are looking for reasons to winnow the pile to something manageable. So, unless there's something compelling in your cover letter or resume that screams you are perfectly qualified for the job, it's probably a waste of time. However, if you are perfectly qualified, there probably is a real job at the other end of that posting. But as a numbers game, it's stacked against you.

Q: In this depressed market, is the ranking of business schools becoming an increasingly important factor in corporate recruiting? That is, how is the market for MBAs from schools not in the Top 10?


The softness in the economy will slightly increase the pressure on companies to go to the top-ranked schools, and they do this for reasons of ego and political defensiveness. If a company is only hiring a few MBAs, everybody in management wants to be assured that they have hired the best students available. And while everyone will acknowledge that there are quality students at all schools, it is easier to justify hiring a student from a No. 3 school than from a No. 33 school.

That having been said, employers also need to show successful yields from the schools where they recruit, and will go back to schools where they have had success in the past. The campus-recruiting manager is balancing often-competing goals of satisfying management's need to believe it has the best hires [with] its need to hire as efficiently as possible.

Q: Can you speculate what percentage of B-school graduates from top 10 colleges will land at least one job offer?


If you're willing to look at a time frame within six months of graduation, I will speculate that close to 100% of them will land a job. It may not be their dream job, and it may not pay the kind of money they were hoping to command when they entered business school. But any candidates who have the credentials to be accepted at a top-10 business school have a pretty impressive resume. By virtue of their pre-business-school accomplishments, they are pretty employable. It may take them longer to find a job, but they will be re-employed.

Q: The stock market has been pretty dispiriting, so it seems logical to ask if the job market is being driven by the stock market.


Yes and no. The stock market clearly puts pressure on companies to produce consistent profits, and since payroll is one of the largest expenses for many companies, a depressed stock price directly affects management's willingness to expand payroll expense. But much of the hiring that came over the last two years was from startup companies that had not yet gone public, and clearly had dreams of going public, but were not part of the market yet. So it's not driven entirely by the market. It's driven both by business fundamentals and by the mood of business managers -- their perspective on the future, which may not be driven by reality.

Q: Any tips for recent grads still seeking jobs?


The best strategy for students graduating this year is to try to find a "back door" to a job. Going through a hiring manager or any person within an organization who may know about a unique case where an employee has resigned and needs to be replaced or a new account has been landed and needs to be staffed -- those are the best opportunities.

Hiring is always going on, even though companies may officially have a hiring freeze. People move, unfortunately they may die, they have family situations, and that leads to a hiring opportunity. And the best way to find these opportunities is to talk to as many people as you can and ask them point-blank, "Do they know of any opportunities?" Or, "Do they know anyone else you can talk to who may be able to help?"

Q: Any thoughts on executive MBAs vs. full-time MBAs in the job market? How do potential hirers view them, and how do their benefits differ?


Executive MBAs have the most benefit for employees looking to move up in their current organization. They generally do not come with an immediate pay increase or title increase, but will raise the stock of the individual nonetheless. For individuals who want to change companies or change careers, a full-time MBA will offer much better opportunities.

Q: After attending the company information sessions, how should I leverage those contacts if I am unsure as to the career I wish to pursue?


In this market, I would pursue everything! I would be careful not to waste the time of any company recruiter if you are ambivalent about an opportunity. But I would follow up with anyone you have met at a company information session, to keep open the possibility that you will be on a closed interview list or otherwise seriously considered for a job.

As for ways of following up, I would encourage students to keep in touch via e-mail first, snail mail second, and voice mail third, for the reasons that those are the least intrusive on an individual's day. You want to keep your name and information in front of an executive, but you don't want to be a pest.... An occasional contact to ask about the status of your application may be appropriate. Any news that adds to your credentials is a great excuse to keep in touch. So, if a team project that you've been working on in school is selected as a finalist or you receive any kind of an award, or the mock portfolio you manage outperforms the market, I wouldn't hesitate to drop a quick e-mail to a company representative.

In one or two sentences: Find a way to relate your accomplishment to the job opportunity.

Q: What advice can you give people who are interested in finding international opportunities in this environment?


Finding employment outside the U.S. will continue to be challenging, mostly because non-U.S.-based companies don't have a good infrastructure for finding and hiring U.S. students. The hiring that is done is often done through connections or unique situations. There is also the issue of visas in many countries, which makes it difficult.

Again, the best opportunities over the last few years have been with the consulting firms, but they will be offering far fewer opportunities this year and presumably next. So the best way to work outside the U.S. is probably to start with a U.S.-based multinational and apply for an international transfer when you're eligible.

Q: What sector of the economy do you think will have the greatest need for MBAs when the economy recovers?


That's a tough one. Over the next two to three years, I think the strongest hirers of MBAs will be traditional Fortune 500 companies, and I say this because they saw so much of their talent siphoned off to dot-coms and other glamour industries that they need to build their bench strength again. And big corporations understand the value of an MBA, they understand how to use the education and training an MBA has received, and they have the opportunities that will make a good match with many MBAs.

I see the Fortune 500 replenishing their bench strength and being, maybe not the most glamorous employers compared to what was available over the last few years, but the most dependable employers.

Q: Isn't the supply of MBAs building up, as new MBAs can't find jobs and schools keep churning out fresh degrees? If the cycle is typically two years, we're looking at a worse market for next fall.


The reality is that MBAs get absorbed into the job market, by and large. And the entry-level opportunities for MBAs always go to newly graduated MBAs. It's very rare that you find someone who graduated in 2001 competing for an entry-level slot with the class of 2002.

Students who don't get hired at the end of their second year on a management-track program enter the workforce through different avenues. So there is real value in being a second-year MBA that you lose once you graduate. There are opportunities available to you while you're a student that will not be available to you six months later. So the phenomenon of a glut or a backlog really doesn't happen because MBA employers really are focused on the graduating class.

Q: Which business school majors seem most attractive to recruiters?


Obviously, this will depend on the recruiter. But generally, the more traditional majors of finance and marketing are easier for employers to match with their current jobs than some of the newer majors in global commerce or e-strategies.

While employers hire MBAs to become executive management, hopefully responsible for a breadth of functions, they want their managers to be solidly grounded in at least one discipline. They want you to have broad skills but they don't want dilettantes. So mastery of some function will always be an advantage.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.