The Jobs Wizard of Wharton?

Peter Degnan is revamping the B-school's career center. But a tepid economy continues to make placing grads a challenge

In some ways, Peter Degnan is an unlikely choice to direct the career services office at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. He came to Wharton with no relevant academic experience, after living outside the U.S. for more than a decade. Yet the 44-year-old former investment banker has been handed one of the most important roles at Wharton: Helping find good jobs for the school's grads, who expect their high-priced education to buy them an edge in the most inhospitable MBA labor market in years.

Degnan, who earned his MBA from NYU's Stern School in 1986, got a taste of those expectations when he started work last summer: He was greeted with 110 pages of angry student comments from Wharton's annual internal review. The school's 2002 placement tally wasn't shabby: About 76% of its students had a job offer by graduation, putting Wharton in the highest quartile of the Top 30 schools in BusinessWeek's biennial rankings. But that was way down from the 92% placement rate in 2000. Moreover, Bob Bonner, Degnan's predecessor, had left to direct the MBA program at nearby Temple University in the middle of the recruiting season.

Suddenly, Wharton's old strategy -- a focus on long-term career counseling rather than on job hunting skills -- seemed inadequate. Worse, students felt, companies that made and then rescinded job offers in 2001 faced no consequences in 2002. (By contrast, rival Columbia threatened to ban recruiters who asked students to forego promised signing bonuses). "The careers office had the right skills for good times, but not for bad times," says Wharton second-year Laura Bennett. Students were so irate, they voiced their criticisms in surveys that helped determine BusinessWeek's B-school rankings, abruptly ending Wharton's 8-year reign at No. 1 and dropping it to No. 5.

Enter Degnan, who laughingly credits "divine intervention" for his arrival at the school's west Philadelphia campus. An old college buddy of his at Georgetown University, Brian Paulson, now a Jesuit priest and president of Chicago prep school St. Ignatius, had planted the education bug in Degnan's ear. "I could tell there was a part of him that seemed a little bored with what he had done before," Paulson says.

After leaving his job as chief operating officer for UBS's Asia-based operations in 2002, Degnan tried for positions at various universities, including the career services job at Georgetown's McDonough School of Business. He applied to Wharton via a want ad in The New York Times, and immediately clicked with the faculty. Wharton admissions director Rosemaria Martinelli, chair of the search committee, says Degnan's corporate background made him a perfect choice to refocus the placement office. "We knew we needed a paradigm shift," Martinelli says.

Among other qualities, she liked Degnan's insider knowledge of Wall Street. The Matteson, N.J., native had spent eight years there with Citigroup and Lehman Brothers before leaving for Tokyo in 1989 and eventually becoming Lehman's CFO in Asia. In 1998, he jumped to UBS just in time for its merger with fellow Swiss bank SBC.

Degnan compares his merger experience with his overhaul of Wharton's careers office: "Everything is being changed -- it's a complete re-engineering effort," he says. During an unprecedented economic boom, career services staffers could be "hand-holders as students made decisions," Degnan says. Now, the onus on his staff is to provide job-hunting secrets from their own experiences.

Degnan also has brought a business-style organization and discipline to the job. Upon arriving, he reorganized his staff of 17 into teams that focus on specific industries, such as banking, media and entertainment, real estate, and travel and tourism. He's in the process of adding four people, including a former health care professional, to head recruiting efforts for that industry. At the same time, "he has raised the bar in terms of professionalism," Martinelli says. "Meetings have agendas and accomplish things."

Better organization has made it easier to coordinate with other B-school departments to boost revenue. For instance, following the lead of other top B-schools, Wharton has started "cross-selling" the school's services. This spring, Degnan took advantage of a campus visit from C&S Wholesale Grocers' CEO Rick Cohen, who was in town to check out Wharton's executive education courses. Later in the spring, Cohen, who has a bachelor's degree from Wharton, flew MBA job seekers to the privately held company's headquarters in Brattleboro, Vt., for interviews.

Next up on Degnan's agenda: Reshaping Wharton's bewildering campus recruiting routine. Many investment banks want first crack at Wharton's talent, and try to show up at the same time. "Having 20 investment banks come to campus on day one [of recruiting season] creates problems," says Degnan. He has seen top students cram a dozen interviews into a single day, often dashing from a downtown Philadelphia hotel back to campus in 15 minutes for another interview. This system worked itself out during the 90s boom, when job seekers were confident that they'd get job offers and could afford to miss company presentations or ditch interviews. That's no longer the case, and next year, Degnan plans to make order out of chaos.

For example, during Wharton's dedicated interview period (DIP) week next February, he'll set up a four-day schedule for investment banks, which typically like to whittle down their prospective hires through successive rounds of interviews. One set of banks will do their first round of job interviews on Monday and a second round on Thursday. Another set of banks will do first rounds on Tuesday and second rounds on Wednesday. Scheduling interviews for the school's 800 grads each spring has become so complex that Degnan has hired a game theory optimization expert to sort it all out.

Another challenge is to devise enforceable punishments for companies that rescind job offers. That's a delicate task at a time when employers can afford to be extra-choosy about where they recruit -- especially if they also send employees to Wharton for executive education courses or donate money for chair endowments. Degnan acknowledges that it's a tricky calculus. For now, he's contemplating a "three strikes and you're out" policy to bar companies from campus after three breaches of recruiting etiquette. But any sort of policy change would require approval from the university.

Degnan is taking a hard line with students as well. This year, he amended an interview cancellation policy that allowed Wharton MBAs to cancel out of an interview with only 30 minutes notice. That riled recruiters, and there was "no chance to get another student into that slot," Degnan says. Now, students have to cancel by 3 p.m. the previous day. For next year, Degnan is considering fining student no-shows up to $500. "Some students aren't going to like that," he says.

Perhaps Degnan's biggest test at the moment is satisfying the expectations of the 800 or so overachievers that Wharton admits each year. He has created a chart that compares students' dream jobs with the number of positions he expects Wharton grads to be offered in each field. No less than 150 students in the first year's class chose jobs in private equity, even though Degnan's chart predicts that only about 15 of them would land there. "Most of these people never failed at anything in their lives," says Degnan. For this bunch, not landing a dream job is difficult to accept.

Hiring at Wharton this year mirrors the overall MBA market so far. The number of grads going into consulting is up slightly from a dismal 2002. Real-estate and investment management is drawing more interest, particularly from students who are still looking for jobs after the end of the traditional recruiting cycle, which is ending now. Hiring by investment banks is down, though recruiting for sales and trading operations remains reasonably robust. Once the final accounting is done, Degnan expects the share of the class who had jobs as of Wharton's May 18 graduation to be just below last year's 76%.

Degnan's efforts so far haven't gone unnoticed. According to Wharton insiders, the latest student survey shows that perceptions of the careers office are improving. But as a former CFO, Degnan knows one thing for sure: Ultimately, he's going to be judged on the numbers.

By Brian Hindo

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