Fight for Jobs Easing at Career Offices

With improved offer rates, a pickup in recruiting by banks, and growing MBA interest in nontraditional sectors, placement offices at Europe's top B-schools are more upbeat

Lisa Bridgett acknowledges she's one of the lucky ones. Since graduating from Switzerland's IMD business school in December, she has landed a job as senior director of e-commerce for Ralph Lauren (RL). The 35-year-old even turned down a second offer from another luxury goods outfit. But her achievement is due to more than just luck. "I had more than 60 interviews," says the law graduate, whose previous career included management consulting at Accenture (ACN) and a stint as a music industry marketer. "Where companies would normally have three or four interviewers, it would go to seven or even eight people having to vet you. My job search was an extremely busy time."

Across Europe, scores of MBA graduates like Bridgett are finding risk-averse companies will hold up to 10 interviews with each candidate before signing new recruits. But the hard slog eventually pays off. Some 93% of Bridgett's IMD classmates have received job offers as of February, vs. 89% at the same time last year. "We're pretty happy," says Katty Ooms-Suter, Lausanne-based IMD's director of MBA admissions and career services. "We got the feeling that the market was picking up, carefully."

While figures aren't definitive—especially because recruiting now drags on for months after graduation—job offers for the December 2009 class at Fontainebleau (France)-based INSEAD rose 7% compared with July 2009. At London's Cass Business School, both financial services and consulting have rebounded, helped by students being less fussy about the roles they're willing to take. And for schools with two-year programs, like Barcelona-based IESE, banking and consulting are providing more summer internship opportunities than last year.

Encouraging Signs

There are encouraging signs in other industries, too, particularly health care and pharmaceuticals. "Some sectors are aggressively recruiting and they're back to paying high sign-on bonuses," says Sandra Schwarzer, director of the careers department at INSEAD. She picks out biotech, renewable energy, public administration, and nonprofits among other positive sectors, and says she is confident recruiting will pick up in consulting, as well.

Some of the career changes achieved by graduates this year have been a pleasant surprise. "I've seen switches I wouldn't have thought possible in an economy like this," says Schwarzer. She cites a former member of the military taking a retail sales marketing position, and a financial-services consultant going into health-care marketing. "We've seen it all," she says.

That said, the job market remains tough overall. While banks are back on campus, they're still making fewer offers than before the downturn. "We haven't recovered the number of positions," says Gloria Batllori, MBA director at Barcelona-based ESADE. At London Business School, fewer students are expected to get jobs in finance again this year, below boom-time levels of up to 40% of graduates. That's despite recruitment drives at Barclays Capital (BCS), which is expanding in the U.S., and Nomura (NMR), which acquired the European assets of failed Lehman Brothers.

Career Services in Overdrive

To help students find work, career services departments have gone into overdrive, bolstering their staff counts and directing additional resources at nontraditional MBA sectors outside of banking and consulting. Oxford's Saïd Business School has invited representatives to campus from potential employers as diverse as Louis Vuitton (LVMUY) and the U.N. to participate in informal career panels.

"We're bringing in organizations that haven't been to the school before," says Director of Careers Derek Walker, noting that Saïd held 14 careers events for MBAs in February alone, or one every other day. Meanwhile, since December 2008, INSEAD has offered its students a year of additional career services if they graduate without a job.

Crucially, schools are maintaining their relationships even with companies that aren't recruiting. One new strategy has been to invite them on campus anyway for "no strings attached" networking events. "We're not asking them to come as recruiters—it's risk-free," says Karen Siegfried, MBA executive director at University of Cambridge Judge Business School.

The approach looks to be paying off now that the economy is better. As the market began to pick up in the fall, says IMD's Ooms-Suter, the groundwork had already been laid. "Companies who had said they weren't recruiting started calling back saying, 'Actually we can take one or two,' " she says. Another novel tactic, employed by London Business School: When Accenture said it wasn't hiring, the school asked the firm to send student résumés to its nonprofit clients—a relatively new sector for MBAs. Four graduates got hired by Accenture clients this way.

European schools also are joining forces to boost employment opportunities for students. After several of its local school partners pulled out of its national MBA fair, GISMA business school in Hannover, Germany, united with five other European programs, including Britain's Warwick Business School, for what is billed to be the first European MBA fair. About 25 companies, including BASF (BASFY), Barilla, and the original fair's long-term partner Johnson & Johnson (JNJ), will meet 290 students in April. Others are taking a more singular approach. London's dean, Andrew Likierman, used the World Economic Forum at Davos as a platform to promote students—a first for the school.

Staying in B-School Longer

In a further sign of just how tough the market is, students are opting to stay in school longer. Among the first class to undertake the new flexible MBA at ESADE—where students can opt for a 12-, 15-, or 18-month course of study—only 10 chose the 12-month option and 50 chose to stay for 15 months. The vast majority of students, some 120, plumped for 18 months, preferring to enter the labor market as late as possible. Meanwhile, for the first time starting this year, students at Judge will be able to take on internships, giving them additional opportunities to impress potential employers.

Forget the "triple jump," where ambitious MBAs once changed their location, business sector, and role after graduation. These days, switching countries post-MBA is becoming more and more difficult. Visa regulations, notably in the U.S. and U.K., are getting tougher. "It's protectionism," says ESADE's Batllori, who says that recruiting foreign employees has become too difficult for some companies to manage. "They can hire someone local with equal talent and fewer obstacles," she says. Further complicating matters, recruiters from nontraditional MBA sectors, such as nonprofits, tend to be less well-versed in navigating onerous work permit and visa applications.

But ultimately, in tough times, some firms simply prefer local people with an international background. "Companies don't want to take risks so they hire Germans in Germany or French in France," says Alex Herrera, career services director at Spain's IESE. Students at London Business School, meanwhile, are leveraging their school breaks to go home to make contacts in a way they haven't in previous years, says Director of Career Services Diane Morgan, noting however that two-thirds of its graduates manage to stay in Europe. The London school this month hired former HSBC (HBC) recruiter Dina Khudairi as a senior business development manager in Dubai, the first time it has created a post devoted to career development in another region. "We're very cautious but it just makes you work harder," says Morgan. "Overall it's been really promising. Companies still want good people."

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