Ohio State's Personalized Approach

With only about 140 graduates a year, the Fisher College of Business tracks an individual career plan for each student

With a graduating class of only 140 per year, Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business is relatively small. But while that may mean it draws fewer recruiters to campus than larger schools, Jeffrey Rice, executive director of career services, says it also gives students a job-seeking advantage. Rice says the school's small size lets his department offer students a personalized and hands-on approach. That includes everything from informal coffee breaks with career-services staff to developing and tracking an individual career plan for each student. But he is quick to add that aside from learning how to be successful in a job hunt, Fisher students are at business school because they're serious about their craft. Ultimately, Rice believes a solid education will give Fisher grads the best chance for success in a tough job market.

Rice is a seasoned career manager—he has been in his position for 15 years, and previously worked in career placement offices at the University of Notre Dame and Aquinas College. Over the years he has weathered many fluctuations in the economy. Perhaps that's why he can keep a cool head in the midst of a sluggish job market. Rice sees the economic slump, rather than spelling doom for Fisher grads, as a chance to refocus his department on growth industries and to teach students the value of flexibility and core strengths. Rice recently spoke with BusinessWeek reporter Francesca Levy about why the economic downturn isn't as bad for MBAs as some think. Below is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Before even setting out to talk to recruiters, your career-services department puts a big emphasis on focusing and clarifying your career direction. How do you do that?

We give a lot of early attention to job search basics. The assumption we make is that most MBAs in top-ranked B-schools are coming with four to five years of work experience. So it's probably been four to five years since they've done a job search. They need to flex their muscles.

Fisher is a small program and can afford a more personal approach with the students, based on the career consultancy model we've established here. The ratio of career consultant to students is about 1 to 25. So, over a two-year MBA program, they can drill down and hone in on an individual basis on the level of job search acumen that these students have. Even prior to matriculation, around July we're sending them career assessments like CareerLeader, and we're sending them information on résumé development, which is due back to us by Aug. 1 for critique.

Partly because of the shaky economy, the career placement process at many MBA programs is starting a lot earlier. Is that true at Fisher?

We've always done early job search basics, regardless of the economy. I tend to be a little outside of the box in terms of what you're hearing about the recruiting of MBAs and what's going on in the market. My head's not in the sand—I know that the financial markets are tough, but there are other markets that have emerged, like health care and technology. We're almost at capacity with recruitment, and our job fairs are sold out. There are two things coming to bear: There is a talent shortage. The baby boomer generation is retiring; companies can't afford not to acquire talent, regardless of what the economy might be saying. The second thing is, the last time this happened was around 2001 and 2002, and a lot of companies suspended recruiting for the fall of 2002 and 2003, and it took them a year to get their recruiting brand back on campus. I don't think they want to lose that momentum, so I'm pretty bullish on recruiting for the fall. And because we have always been able to afford to give early attention to job search basics and career decision-making, we're going to continue to do it.

How does the career-services department help place students in a job or prepare them for interviews?

It's a three-pronged approach. One prong is spending a lot of time in reaffirming what I would consider their primary reason for selecting Fisher: our curriculum. We spend a lot of time during orientation in the fall of their first year and into that first quarter getting them to really home in on an academic major, and the flags we raise pretty high every morning—in no particular order—are operations and logistics, corporate finance, financial reporting and analysis, investment management, marketing management and strategy. This fall, we're adding an international business major as well. We think the greatest value added from the program is the teaching, the pedagogy, the education you're going to get.

The second prong is that we allow students, outside of their core major, to create their career track around elective courses. An advantage at Fisher is that we're one of 18 colleges at this mega-university. Ohio State is the second-largest university in the country. So students can actually go outside of the college. For example, I'm working with a couple of MBAs right now who are trying to create a career track around biotech and biomed. So they're taking some courses through our school of medicine and through our college of health sciences.

And then the third prong is around what we call the leadership and professional development program. Career services is embedded in that. Within that, it's the job search basics, which include behavioral interviewing and case interviewing. It's also résumé development and résumé critiques; it's also concepts of networking, primarily in larger venues, like job fairs and larger corporate receptions. And we break that down to actual role plays, we host some simulated receptions in our offices, students come in and give their elevator speeches and shake our hands, and then we critique them afterwards as far as, did they make a favorable impression.

So those are the three prongs, and the image might be a three-legged stool: All three of those legs are important: academic foundation, specialized career track in terms of elective courses, and then participating in our leadership and professional development programs.

You mentioned role plays. What other practical things do you do as far as training—what are the specific exercises?

We do mock interviews, both behavioral and case. We like to have two people with the student, one doing the interview, and one doing the observation. And then the case interview is usually two mini-cases followed by critique. That's usually two consultants to one student.

In addition to our own critique, we encourage them to get the critique of others. Every Fisher student is assigned a mentor, and those mentors are external stakeholders, they are executives and business leaders outside of the college. A lot of them are alumni. We encourage critique from them. We do smaller group critiques; we gather maybe 10 or 15 students, and have those students share their résumés around the room with each other and get feedback. Those are some of the practical things we do on the résumé side.

One thing that I'm really proud of—and because of size we can afford it—we actually then have the student form what we call a personal career marketing plan. Included in that is a brand statement, a career statement—this is about themselves, target industries, target companies, their action plan in terms of follow-up, when are they going to make contact. That becomes something over the following roughly 16 months that we can track with that student on a weekly basis. We actually encourage weekly meetings between our students and our consultants, but we leave that up to the student. I mean, if we haven't seen them in a month, we call them.

Anything else you do for students?

We offer some significant workshops that are ongoing, in the area of negotiations. It's not just salary. That's one component, but it's also the concept of negotiating from the get-go. What I mean by that is in the interview, we're strong and heavy on what we call selling propositions. So when you've responded to a question in a behavioral interview, once you've given your example—the question they might have asked is, "Give me an example of a time you worked on a team."—once you've gone through the example and used a framework we coach called STAR—Situation, Task, Action, Result—you just kind of wrap the present up and tie a bow on it by talking about, in a selling way, why that's a competency you possess, and how you'll apply that competency to that company. So we spend a lot of time in workshops around selling propositions.

What do you counsel in your salary negotiation workshops?

When they get offers, we spend a lot of time looking at the terms of those offers. You know, money's one thing, but I have often felt that in high-level MBA recruiting, which we've earned the opportunity to participate in here at Fisher, the right companies are coming, and they've done the research on compensation. A lot of these offers are prix fixe. You know, "This is it. Take it or leave it." There can be some negotiation around that, but what you really ought to be negotiating is your path—"Where am I going to go after two years? What would be some opportunities after my performance review to earn the next position?" And there are never going to be guarantees in that negotiation, but you begin to put stakes in the ground around how you want to hopefully proceed and progress in the company.

Tell me about your industry-specific boot camps.

This gets students to home in on an academic major and career track. We'll take what we consider to be our five cores, which again are operations, supply chain, corporate finance, investment management, marketing. And our marketing curriculum bends towards brand management and strategy. And then we'll take two other areas: accounting as a pure function and real estate. In those seven areas, we'll run one-and-a-half-day events and bring in alumni in those fields, and then employers. We do a series of panels and keynote addresses. We have interactive opportunities for our students, networking things like lunches and breakfasts. And what's being addressed is the basic fundamentals of a career path in that industry.

They learn about a typical day at work—what is the value added for that industry. "Where in the culture of this company do I have opportunities for interaction, what does it prepare me to do for my own personal brand?" About 30% to 35% of students will attend five or six of these events. I've always liked the personal trainer model. Our job is to push you, not to do the work for you.

What do you tell students that Fisher can offer them in terms of job placement that other schools can't?

I've long felt that an MBA program—and Fisher does this—gives the best value to that student investor if it's helping focus on their strengths, interests, and competencies first and foremost, industry second. I find too many students are fixated on an industry, and what's hot in the employment market. To me there's too much unpredictability in the ebb and flow of the job market, and that can make industry fixation too big a hedge. That doesn't mean students shouldn't pay attention to economic trends; clearly the activities over the past year in the financial markets should be taken into consideration by students who have interests in that sector. I talked earlier about the expansion of the opportunities based on demographics and our population—that the health-care sector is a growth sector so students who are interested in that ought to stay true to it.

But my greater point is that career progression and return on investment is based on what I call skill spikes—financial analysis or financial modeling acumen, supply chain or value mapping skills, or market research and market analytics expertise. That's what a recruiter's buying, and the true definition of personal career brand is what an MBA purports to help strengthen. Along with leadership and communication and teamwork, you're going to enter an industry where you have a spike in something. You're going to enter a bulge bracket, say, because you've got real strong financial analysis skills. But as your career progresses at a Goldman Sachs (GS), you're going to need analytics, and some mapping skills. So don't get headstrong in industry focus, and think more about your strength competencies and interests. I think that's the unique selling proposition here. We're pretty bold and bullish about selling that, over the common notion that you walk in the door and 20 months later that investment job you always wanted is in your hand.

How do you market Fisher students to recruiters?

We're trying to deepen the skill set rather than shifting focus to industry. And it provides a more solid diversification of portfolio of industries a student can pursue. We've got a fairly diverse set of recruiters in our portfolio. Within consulting we've got Deloitte Consulting, Boston Consulting Group, and McKinsey. Within banking we've got commercial and investment banks from within the bulge brackets to retail commercial banks, and within manufacturing and operations and supply chain we've got Motorola (MOT) and Whirlpool (WHR), and we've got some good solid companies, but in any of those paths you need more as you go on.

You have a career fair coming up in October. How many, and what types of companies are you expecting to come?

We brand it around the top tier of our portfolio. We've built a six-building campus. We have a hotel, we have ballrooms that are Fisher-proprietary, so we want to leverage that, rather than have them go to the student union of Ohio State. So our job fair is really limited to about 30 to 35 companies. Within that list would be Abbott Labs (ABT), Accenture (ACN), Capital One (COF), Cardinal Health (CAH), Deloitte Consulting, Exxon Mobil (XOM), Emerson (EMR), Ford (F), IBM (IBM), Procter & Gamble (PG), JPMorgan Chase (JPM), Kimberly-Clark (KMB), Lehman Brothers (LEH), Limited Brands (LTD), Motorola, Oracle (ORCL), Raytheon (RTN), Target (TGT), Textron (TXT), and Boston Consulting Group. There are a lot more. You can find the whole list on our Web site.

We'll do second and third job fairs following that, which are more free-enterprise oriented. If you want to come, you come. Part of this is what I would describe as a supply-and-demand reality. We're graduating 140 students, and there are some companies that just simply aren't going to come to Fisher. It's not a quality issue, it's a quantity issue. We've got good students, but there just aren't enough of them.

So how do you make sure that students can meet with the broadest possible array of recruiters?

I often call it a push-and-pull strategy. These job fairs, and our fall recruiting program, is what I call our push strategy, when we bring in our core 50 to 75 companies that want to recruit here and we want them here. Our pull strategy is around trips that we'll take our students on—a weeklong trip to Wall Street. We go to Chicago in early January to hit a lot of the marketing companies. As most schools are, we're heavy participants in the National Black MBA Conference and the National Hispanic Conference, where there are hundreds of companies. So our strategy of recruiter interface are those two things, a push—our job fairs and recruiters on campus—and then the pull is the off-site trips we take our students on. We actually build a fund around those trips. We call it our core travel fund. Students get stipends for about 35% of expenses.

The third piece is around some proprietary job stuff online that we do; we have our job board, it's proprietary to Fisher students and Fisher alumni. We certainly co-brand with Monster.com, MBAFocus.com, Ladders.com, and other places, but this proprietary board is really built around direct access of our students to opportunities that more companies on our portfolio come to.

Where do students typically get jobs when they graduate?

The top four industries are consulting, consumer products, financial services, and manufacturing. They are in the 15% to 20% of the class range. The others, which are in the 5% to 10% range, would be energy, health care, retail services, and technology.

How involved are alumni in career services?

They're very involved. I spent the first five years here building our portfolio. We had a brand 15 years ago that was pretty mediocre. So we rebuilt our brand to play in a national way. Then we started investing in the last frontier, which is engaging alumni. There has been a lot of interaction in the last five years on the Web site. They've had the ability to hit a button that said: "I'd like to serve as a career mentor," and hundreds if not thousands have ponied up to that. And there's a range. The low end of the range is saying: "I agree to be contacted by no more than five students." The high end is mentoring one student for 20 months.

Just a few years ago, recruiters came to campuses and used dedicated job boards to post their jobs. Now sites like LinkedIn and Facebook and others have expanded the possibilities for connection. Has your career placement process been affected by new technologies?

Yes. It's happening, and we're addressing it. The negative end is that it becomes passive if that's all you're doing. It can be real tempting to put on your bathrobe and slippers, rather than a suit, and find a job online. I still think that 80% of most jobs are obtained by personal contact, 20% are obtained by less than that, or luck. There's some low-hanging fruit out there—that can happen. The leverage of the Internet and social networking can be a good thing. How they effectively leverage the technology to do what they've got to is up to them.

In career services, we have a very open-door policy. In our new building we've created a lot of open spaces, social spaces. There's coffee running all the time, places for the students to come in and do their wireless. I want students here, because it's an opportunity for informal conversations about what they are doing in their career search. And you really do have to get out of the house. There isn't a day that goes by here when there isn't an employer in the building.