Jobless MBAs Seek Solace in Support Groups

Gillian Mager was in the midst of updating her MBA job club members on her networking efforts last June when she broke down in tears. Like most in the support group at the University of California at San Diego's Rady School of Management (Rady Full-Time MBA Profile), her job search had extended beyond graduation and she spent her days sending out reams of résumés, often getting no response back. Making matters worse, she learned shortly before the meeting that a promising job opportunity she'd pinned her hopes on had fallen through. "I remember talking about it and I just started crying hysterically," she says. "My friend just hugged me and was like, 'You know what, everything is going to work out.' " For the rest of the hourlong session, her business school classmates discussed what might have gone wrong during her job interview, critiqued her résumé, and gave her ideas on what she could do differently next time. The group's encouragement and advice paid off; by August she landed a job as a marketing data analyst at Petco. Says Mager: "I just think if I were doing it alone, it would have been a lot harder. Having that shoulder to lean on really helped." Supporting the Job SearchStudents are banding together to help each other more than ever before as they navigate one of the most dismal MBA job markets in years. In the last year or two, dozens of job search support clubs, often called "job accountability" groups, have sprung up on MBA campuses across the country. Some are official school-sponsored ones organized by the career services offices at business schools, while others are student-generated and student-led meetings. While the format of the groups can vary—they take place in campus cafeterias, students' apartments, or via conference call—all of them share a common goal: to help keep students motivated and upbeat while hunting for a job in a brutal market, career services officers say. In some cases, alumni from the MBA class of 2009 still job-hunting are participating. The groups can become a lifeline of sorts for students, who can easily get discouraged and frustrated as their job search drags on, says Robin Darmon, director of Rady's MBA Career Connections office, who launched several job clubs for students last year and plans to do so again this winter. "Keeping their morale up is a huge part of this, so we kind of act as cheerleaders. We talk them through it and say, 'This too will pass,' " Darmon says. "Most of these students are doing everything right, and in a good economy they would have had four or five job offers." Indeed, by this time just a few years ago, most second-year MBAs at top schools had already secured job offers and signed contracts with their internship employers. But the job downturn that hit MBA campuses last year does not appear to have subsided yet and many students continue to face a prolonged and difficult job search, career services directors say. According to the latest data reported to Bloomberg BusinessWeek, 16.5% of job-seeking students from the 2009 graduating class of the top 30 MBA programs did not get even one offer by the time schools collected their final fall employment data three months after graduation. And it doesn't look like the hiring outlook is going to be much better for MBAs graduating this spring. Recruiting in areas like financial services and consulting, two of the most popular career destinations among MBA grads, remains flat or down for most business schools this fall. And many anticipate it will remain that way for the rest of the school year, according to the preliminary results of a survey of 90 business schools conducted this fall by the umbrella group MBA Career Services Council. Grim Job Market"The reality is we are not seeing greatly improved growth across all industries this year," says Kip Harrell, board president of the MBA Career Services Council and the director of the career management center at Thunderbird School of Global Management (Thunderbird Full-Time MBA Profile) in Glendale, Ariz. "Employment is a lagging indicator so even if the economy is showing signs of recovery, it could take six or even seven months before MBA employment comes back to what it was before March of 2008." The dreary job climate is what motivated two career services counselors at the University of Washington's Foster School of Business (Foster Full-Time MBA Profile) to start a weekly dial-in conference call with students from the school's Executive MBA program and the Technology Management MBA program. Ann Girarde and Susie Buysse, who work in the career services office, asked several of the students they counseled to participate. Every Wednesday at 10 a.m. for the last six months, students and alumni call in and share their job-hunting stories, give advice to their peers, and come up with networking ideas. Many were hit by layoffs at nearby Washington Mutual (WAMUQ), Microsoft (MSFT), Boeing (BA), Starbucks (SBUX), and other prominent companies in the Seattle area, while others lost company sponsorship in the middle of the program, says Girarde, who works with the school's Executive MBA students. "It is such an unprecedented time. A lot of people were impacted who never imagined they'd lose their job on such short notice," Girarde says. "People really like the call because it is very encouraging to know that people are going through the same thing that you are. We all brainstorm together and people are extremely supportive of each other." Networking and Other BenefitsOne of the students who recently joined the conference call is Dan Liao, 32, who started Foster's Technology Management MBA program this fall. The 18-month program is designed for working professionals with an interest in technology. Liao had expected to continue working while he was in school, but was laid off this September from his marketing job at Affymetrix (AFFX), a Santa Clara (Calif.)-based health-care technology company. He's been looking for a new job since then and started participating in the conference call about a month ago. On a recent call, he tested his 30-second "elevator marketing pitch" on his colleagues and sought feedback from students on how he could make a better first impression when meeting recruiters. He's also asked people on the conference call if they know anyone in their personal networks who might be willing to help him; so far, he's gotten wind of several opportunities from group members, he says. And that's not the only benefit. "Emotionally, it has been really helpful. When it's been 20-odd degrees out there every day and cold, it gives you a warm and fuzzy human feeling to talk to people on the call. It's a support structure, so you don't feel like you're alone and the only one out of work," says Liao, who helped organize the group's first face-to-face meeting—a morning coffee with doughnuts and bagels—at the school's cafeteria last week. "And I have to say, it's actually very effective. So far, I already have three job leads just by talking to people in the groups." These types of groups play an important role in helping students broaden their networking capabilities and stay motivated during the job hunt, says Rebecca Zucker, a partner at San Francisco-based Next Step Partners, a firm that specializes in guiding clients through career transitions. Back in the 2001 recession, Zucker was asked by business schools across the country to lead Career Action Groups, a six-week support and career transition program for recent MBA graduates who were having trouble landing a job. In the current economic climate, students are clamoring for this type of support while they're still in business school, she says. "There has just been a tremendous need for these groups at business schools. Students need extra support and business schools tend to be social environments anyway, so I think people just genuinely want to help each other," Zucker says. Students as Group LeadersAt a handful of business schools, some of these efforts are being led by business school students, rather than career services officers. MBA students from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business (Ross Full-Time MBA Profile) have set up about 10 student-led "accountability groups" for full-time job-seekers who are members of the Net Impact chapter, a business-oriented environmental club with about 370 members. Each group has anywhere from five to seven students and all of the sessions are led by a student facilitator, who helps classmates build a timeline for their job search, provides guidance, and leads discussions. The club has always run these types of groups, but their popularity has increased in the last year, says Becca Brooke, a second-year MBA who is vice-president for career education at the Ross Net Impact chapter and facilitator of one of the accountability groups. At meetings, members come up with helpful tips—such as writing holiday cards to old contacts to let them know about the job hunt—and help keep their peers on top of tasks such as setting up informational interviews and sending out résumés. "I think without the group I would be a lot more stressed," says Brooke, a dual-degree student who is looking to work at an organization like the National Parks Service or the World Resources Institute. "The job search is an emotional and nerve-racking process, but the groups really bring a sense of calm and a 'you can do it' confidence to the job search." Brooke is not alone in her quest to find a job outside of the finance or consulting world. About one-quarter of the students at the Ross School look for jobs in nontraditional fields at companies that don't recruit on campus, which can make the job search all the more challenging, says Leslie Lynn, Ross' associate director of career development. In addition to the peer-led Net Impact career groups, the school also operates official job support groups run by the career services office, she says. A few years back, these groups typically wouldn't start meeting until the winter semester but the timeline has been ramped up so that the groups now start getting together before the December holiday break. There are also resources for alumni; graduates from the class of 2009 who have yet to land jobs keep in touch daily through a "Yes We can 09" group listserv, where students swap job-searching articles, advice, job-hunting stories, and other suggestions that help "people keep their heads up" during a challenging period in their lives, Lynn says. "I think the most rewarding and most emotional stories of these groups are when efforts lead to success," Lynn says. "The group as a whole just takes such gratitude and a little skip in their step from that news."