MBA Class of 2008: Careers Back on Track

Andrew Storey considered himself one of the lucky ones when he graduated from the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University in 2008. Even though the economic downturn had made it tough for many MBAs to find jobs, he landed a plum position as a London-based consultant with Booz & Co., where he’d interned the previous summer. But like many consulting companies at the time, Booz was hit hard by the economic downturn, and Storey says recent hires began to worry about their jobs as project work began to slow. Says Storey: “It was one of those things where you could see the writing on the wall.”

His worst fears were realized in the fall of 2009, when he and about 100 other workers in the London office, many also recent MBA graduates, were laid off. Rather than flounder around in the job market looking for a similar gig, Storey chose to reinvent himself, taking a job with the Clinton Health Access Initiative, where he had volunteered in the past. “When things were going bad at Booz, I didn’t sit back and say, ‘Why is this happening to me? I’ve done everything right,’ ” says Storey, who has since been promoted. “You roll with it and see where it takes you.”

Just how unique is Storey’s tale? Turns out his nimble approach to the roiling job market was fairly common among his peers from the MBA class of 2008, according to a Bloomberg Businessweek analysis of the career paths taken by 1,000 graduates from that class. We randomly chose 30 graduates from each of the 30 top-ranked U.S. MBA programs and 10 graduates from each of the top 10 international programs. Current job data were collected from LinkedIn profiles and compared to the jobs reported by respondents in the 2008 Bloomberg Businessweek MBA student survey. Of the 889 students for whom data were available, 393, or 44 percent, had changed employers since graduating. The remaining 496 graduates, or 56 percent, were still at their first post-MBA employers, with about half of those, or 52 percent, having changed jobs within their respective companies.

Recession Job Market

Exactly what this means is uncertain. Are the 111 graduates without LinkedIn profiles unemployed, or just private? Did those who changed employers advance their careers, or grab the first available job? And after three years in the job market, how does the Class of 2008 compare to those that came before?

Harvard economist Richard Freeman, who also serves as director of the National Bureau of Economic Research, says the number of people changing employers seems high for a recession, when most people tend to stay put in their current jobs. However, he believes that many business school graduates likely settled for less-than-ideal jobs when they graduated, and were quick to jump on more promising opportunities when they came along. Says Freeman: “They took a short hit and maybe they never got back to quite as good a job as they would have gotten had they come out of school during a boom period.”

MBA Career Services Council President Nicole Hall agrees that 2008 graduates appear to have moved on to a second job at a higher rate than normal. The economic downturn probably had the most impact on career switchers, as employers became more reluctant to hire graduates with limited experience in the industry, says Hall, who also serves as the executive director of alumni and career services at Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business and Management. As a result, these students were forced to take a lower wage or title than they would have liked in order to enter the field. “That was probably the most difficult part for the Class of 2008,” Hall says. “Their opportunities were limited, and from that standpoint they didn’t have a lot of flexibility.”

Ripple Effects

Even those fortunate career switchers who managed to land a job in their field of choice were not immune to the ripple effects of the financial meltdown. Brian Stempeck, a 2008 graduate of the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School and a former journalist, scored a job as a consultant at Bain & Co. after graduation, but then stood on the sidelines watching as dozens of his classmates, especially those entering real estate or finance, had job offers rescinded or were laid off in the months following graduation.

Feeling less secure, he made a counterintuitive move, ditching his job at Bain after two years to become the 10th employee of The Trade Desk, a venture-backed startup in New York that helps marketers buy advertising from an online ad exchange. “I personally felt like I lost a lot of faith or trust that the jobs at big companies would always be there,” says Stempeck, now vice-president of business development at The Trade Desk, which has grown from 10 to 25 employees since he joined a year earlier. “Moving jobs was risky, but I felt it would be more stable in the long term.”

For others the financial crisis had little, if any, impact on their career progression and goals. Amy Steel Vanden-Eykel, a 2008 Harvard Business School graduate, spent seven years working in the strategy consulting field before business school, and was looking to move into a business role at a consumer-goods company. After interning at sporting-goods maker Nike, she ultimately decided to accept a job offer at the office-supply store Staples. Now on her third promotion, she is currently serving as the company’s director of technology initiatives.

“Things have worked out really well for me here,” says Vanden-Eykel. “In the end, I don’t feel like any of the opportunities that I had were waylaid at all by the meltdown.”

Rethinking Finance

Not all were as fortunate as Vanden-Eykel, especially those who accepted jobs in finance. At the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business, where about 15 percent of the class typically goes into investment banking, many students with Wall Street dreams became reluctant career switchers after the Lehman Brothers collapse, says Alumni Career Services Director Connie English. She estimates she worked with more than 50 of them in the year or so after their graduation, helping them rethink their career plans, such as how to move from a bulge bracket bank to a smaller boutique firm or regional bank.

Typically by the two-year mark after graduation, about 70 percent of Darden MBAs are still working at their first post-MBA employer, while 30 percent have left their jobs for new positions, English says. Those numbers held true for Darden’s 2008 MBA class, but there were key differences. When Darden checked back in with the class in May 2010, 28 percent were no longer with their first post-MBA employer, and 38 percent of those–or 11 percent of the entire class–had been laid off.

“People had to really rethink what they were going to be, because what they thought they were going to do wasn’t going to exist in the next few years,” she says. “The class had to face adversity, but they’ve also learned some really strong lessons about resilience, looking ahead, and how to take personal responsibility early on for their careers.”

Those 2008 graduates who managed to make a go of it in the battered finance world were forced to do some serious introspection about their career paths, with some deciding to leave the field entirely. Angela Kung Shulman, a 2008 graduate of Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, managed to snag her ideal job after graduation as an investment banker at JPMorgan’s technology group in San Francisco. She’d had an exciting internship there the previous summer, working on an initial public offering for a social-networking company, helping make presentations to potential investors and learning the ins and outs of the business. But when she arrived to start her job in the fall of 2008, she found herself in a radically different environment, with nervous managers, reluctant clients, and barely any deals going through despite constant pitching on her part.

“Even though I had intended staying for a couple of years, I couldn’t justify spending the next few years of my life like that,” says Shulman, who quit in 2009 to form a software company,  ObjectLabs. “It didn’t seem like there was any end in sight.”

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