Commentary: Jobs Are Scarce. B-Schools Should Get Used to It

When Jean Eisel began working in MBA career services a decade ago, finding jobs for grads was a cinch. The best B-schools could simply hang out their shingles and, like magic, employers would show up. There was a time-honored pattern: Second-year students were interviewed during the fall, and by November or December, they were fielding job offers. The major employers of MBAs -- investment banks, consulting firms, and consumer-goods companies -- hired hordes of students in the winter to start work the next August.

Now, as career-services director at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business, Eisel has found herself -- and the MBA grads she's trying desperately to place -- in the middle of a prolonged job drought. Try as she might to boost the numbers, Eisel still hasn't found spots for about 30% of last year's graduates. Although she and other B-school administrators realize the boom days are gone and have scrambled to scrounge up job possibilities for grads, many still insist on relying on fall recruiting, hoping that things will get back to "normal" soon.

But Eisel and her counterparts may be facing a permanently changed recruiting landscape. In today's world, employers are showing up less and less in the fall and hiring far fewer MBAs when they do come to campus -- and often not until spring. Most employers have cut back on the number of campuses they visit, their winter offers continue to dwindle, and many say they'll be looking to after-graduation cherry-picking and spring job postings to fill their yet-unknown 2004 needs. The new reality for career-service staffers and students alike is stark: Companies are now hiring on a just-in-time basis.

This recruiting revolution has widespread repercussions for B-schools, which have long relied on the steady cycle of fall recruiting to place the bulk of students. To cope with the leaner, meaner job scene, B-school career offices will have to take on new and different responsibilities. First, abandon the hope that MBA recruiting will go back to the shingle-hanging days. That means reaching out even more to nontraditional and smaller recruiters -- employers that might be hiring only one, two, or three MBAs, instead of the 200 or so each consulting firm or investment bank once scooped up.

Some schools have already begun to regroup, like the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, where seven new staffers have joined the career-service office this year. Most are responsible for targeting small-fry outfits in industry, although of course the brand-name school will continue to cater to the big boys of Corporate America. Staffers at schools like University of Southern California's Marshall School of Business are now showing up at recruiters' doors to keep up with their latest hiring moves.

B-schools should also consider shifting the bulk of recruiting to the spring, when companies have a better idea of their third- and fourth-quarter staffing needs. Smaller companies are even less likely to hire in December for August jobs. But they might be more inclined to make job offers if spring becomes the new hiring season. And by the spring semester, students will likely have better, more well-researched career plans.

Just as important, B-schools will need to continue to hammer the job-market reality home to their students, who will still expect an offer as a sign of an immediate return on their sky-high tuition investment. That means more career counseling and preparation for students and lessons in managing too-optimistic expectations. Now, "every search is nontraditional, and every search is unique," says Steven D. Lubrano, assistant dean at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business.

Above all, B-schools should stop envisioning a future in which companies come calling in droves. Even if it happens down the road, counting on such a rosy picture could lead to complacency. For B-schools, it's time to take those just-in-time case studies out of the classroom and apply them to the recruiting scene changing right under their noses.

By Jennifer Merritt

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