MBA Jobs Enter "a Steady, Solid Phase"

Al Cotrone, career development chief at Michigan's B-school, says hiring has returned to normal and will remain so for several years

Al Cotrone is director of the Office of Career Development at the University of Michigan's Stephen M. Ross School of Business (No. 6 in BusinessWeek's 2004 top-30 list of B-schools).

Cotrone started his career as a certified public accountant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers in Chicago and then moved into PWC's human resources department. He has also worked in HR for Coopers & Lybrand in Detroit. He arrived at the University of Michigan in 1996. As a career changer himself, Cotrone knows firsthand the challenges that MBAs face when building arésumé.

Cotrone addresses the B-school's recent name change (thanks to a $100 million gift from real-estate developer Stephen M. Ross) by noting that this hasn't altered the institution's values of ethics and integrity. He recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online project assistant Francesca Di Meglio. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:

Q: What's your philosophy on career management?


We want our students to lead in thought and action. You have to understand your own skills and where you're going to be most effective. We expect University of Michigan grads to make a positive difference wherever they go. That can only be done if you maintain your ethics and integrity, and it can be maximized if you stay true to the skills you love and the environment in which you want to work.

Q: What are some of the unique job-search services Michigan offers its MBAs?


We first focus to a large degree on self-assessment, so our students know why they're pursuing a particular job. There are several diagnostics that students can access, such as Career Leader, Myers-Briggs, etc. In addition to our five professional staff, we retain about 45 second-year MBAs, whom we train to offer one-on-one counseling to their classmates. We have such a wonderful alumni base that if we can then teach effective networking, the rest of the process becomes perfunctory.

A lot of people mistakenly presume that networking means finding an alumnus and seeing if he [or she] has any job openings. Networking is about establishing relationships. You begin by positioning yourself as someone who's willing to learn from this mentor. Through that process, you make a positive impression, so that when a job opportunity arises, you're the person who gets considered.

Q: It's been a tough couple of years for the MBA job market. How did your MBAs fare, and what did you do to help them overcome the obstacles?


The last three years -- no question -- were very difficult. The classes of 2001 and 2002, especially, faced a dire job market. To assist students in those times, we talked to our alumni to keep them thinking about opportunities for our students and continued to push our students to remain focused and to network effectively.

This year was a normal year, but we hadn't seen one in so long that we had forgotten what it looked like. At graduation on Apr. 30, 85% [of graduates] had received a job offer. Three months after graduation, 92% had an offer. In 2004, we tried to create a second and third recruiting cycle by going back to companies to say, "Look, here are some people who might still be looking for jobs. Let's see if we can find some matches." We had reasonable success with that effort.

Last January, I told recruiters that because of the inefficient first [recruiting] cycle in the fall, some of my best students were still without offers. Within the next week, four companies called back and offered positions to students.

Q: How are salary packages in 2004?


The median base [salary] for the class of 2004 stayed at $85,000 for the third straight year, but we'll see that increase this year. The preliminary offers already have been up between 7% and 10% over last year's figures.

Q: How did the class of 2005 fare in terms of garnering internships?


About 90% of the class had an internship as of July. One thing that leads to our success in the internship process is that Michigan has a strong focus on action-based learning and field projects. Our students work directly with companies for [class] credit. Through that process, we have a number of corporate relationships that often yield summer projects or internships.

Q: What sort of MBA recruiters does Michigan attract?


Michigan is not a fill-in-the-blank school. When I look at my top employer list, I see diversity -- Citigroup, McKinsey, Dell, Booz Allen Hamilton, Johnson & Johnson, JP Morgan Chase, and Eli Lilly. It's brand management, consulting, banks, etc. I can't afford to let Michigan become just a financing school or a consulting school.

We have a broad-based general management education that's steeped in action-based learning. Students need to find their own unique place where they can make a difference in the world, as they were taught to do at Michigan. I have to make sure that my students can practice their skills wherever they're best suited.

Q: How do you get recruiters to pay more attention to Michigan students?


We don't offer perks so much as try to establish and build really deep relationships. We want companies to recruit here, but we also want them engaged in our action-based learning programs. From our most senior and successful alumni all the way down to my staff and [myself], we strategically meet with companies to make their relationship with us a win-win situation. We need to show them the value in our educational programs and the return on their recruitment investments.

Q: What kinds of programming do you offer international students?


We host a separate orientation on the career-search process for international students. Networking is a very difficult thing to understand if you're from a different culture. We really dwell on that with distinctive workshops for those students. The University of Michigan has a robust international center that works through visa issues with them.

Q: Are most international students looking for jobs in the U.S.?


The majority still would prefer to secure a position in the U.S. But an increasing number, especially from India and Asia, are interested in going home. There are so many exciting things going on in India and Asia that suddenly they're viewing that as the best place to be.

Q: Does that pose any difficulty for you as you try to help them secure placement?


International students find the job search relatively straightforward. They've got the connections, and they know the culture. I hear very few reports that it's a difficult process. The most difficult task is when an international student wants to find a position in the U.S. It appears as though international students fare as well as domestic students in landing jobs when looking at the data. But the numbers are deceptive because international students have to work three or four times as hard as U.S. students to get U.S. jobs.

Q: Is the MBA job search going to fundamentally change?


For a while, we heard it was going to be all videoconference interviews. Then companies realized that candidates were more impressive in person. In the end, employers want to hire someone who understands the position, has the skills to perform well, and will bring the ethics, integrity, and positive attitude necessary to lead the organization.

Q: What are your MBA job-market predictions?


I think we're entering a steady, solid phase that will last for a number of years. It feels to me like the 10-year cycle that went from the mid-80s to the mid-90s. There was reasonable, but not excessive, demand for students. It rewarded those students who had prepared, focused on what they wanted to do and leveraged their relationships.

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