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The Job's The Thing

MBA Programs Step Up Efforts to Help Students Win in the War for Talent

Scene: a meeting room on the campus of the University of Maryland in College Park on a mid-summer morning. Forty or so corporate recruiting professionals have gathered to participate in a daylong program of workshops and conversations with the staff of the university’s Robert H. Smith School of Business. There are representatives here from corporate behemoths such as GE and Siemens, major accounting and consulting firms like Booz Allen Hamilton, Deloitte and Ernst & Young, as well as numerous smaller employers from a variety of industries.

At the front of the room, Jeff Kudisch, managing director of the Smith School’s Office of Career Services, welcomes the group with an overview of the day’s agenda and goals. “We’re here to partner with you to fill your talent gaps,” he says as he introduces the career services staff. “We want this to be the best recruiting experience you can have anywhere.”

Welcome to the front lines in the war for MBA talent. At a time when finding good jobs can be tough, and when business schools increasingly are judged by the starting salaries and the job placement rates of their graduates, universities are going to unprecedented lengths to help their MBA students connect with top employers and find work.

The Smith School is a case in point. Its new, state-of-the-art Career Center opened in the fall of 2011 on the second floor of the school’s Van Munching Hall. The facilities include 19 “interview suites,” two Cisco TelePresence® units so students can videoconference with employers anywhere in the world, a fully appointed lounge for visiting recruiters (Kudisch calls it a “hotel-like atmosphere”), and dressing rooms where students can primp and preen before sitting down with company representatives.

In the two years since Kudisch began directing career services at the Smith School (he previously served full-time on the school’s management and organization faculty and was co-founder and principal partner of an HR consulting firm), the Office of Career Services staff has doubled in size. It now includes 24 professionals, including five full-time career coaches and a director of MBA career programming and leadership development. With the expanded personnel and the new digs, the office offers an array of programs and services all geared to one thing: getting the Smith School’s roughly 130 graduates per year into good, well-paying jobs.

“It’s not inexpensive to go to business school,” said G. “Anand” Anandalingam, dean of the Smith School since July 2008. “We owe it to our students to get them on the path to professional and personal success. We aren’t doing this out of magnanimity but because we have a responsibility to these students.”

The Smith School, of course, is not alone. In the wake of the 2008-2009 recession and the concurrent slowdown in MBA hiring, business schools across the country are taking steps to strengthen and expand their career services offerings. “With the increasing competition among business schools to help secure strong job opportunities for their students, we definitely notice an increase in the outreach and support that is provided to us as employers,” said Christina Madison, talent acquisition manager with the consulting firm Grant Thornton LLP.

Starting Early

For students, the increased emphasis on job placement means engaging with the career services office early in their MBA tenure, sometimes before they even get to campus. At Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, the MBA Career Center holds webinars for incoming students during the summer before they start their studies. The webinars introduce students to the career center’s services and provide an overview of the things students should be thinking about and doing as they prepare for the grind of finding summer internships and jobs.

“We have assignments—deliverables that students need to complete before they come to campus,” said Doreen Amorosa, associate dean and managing director of MBA Career Management at the McDonough School. “The idea isn’t just to help students fine tune their resumes and cover letters, but to help them develop fluency in who they are and what they want to do,” she said.

“They start you early, that’s for sure,” said John Vivoda, who received his McDonough School MBA last May. “But in today’s market, you have to take a deliberate approach to both your education and your job search.”

Vivoda, a Purdue engineering graduate who worked as a software engineer in the health care field in the Chicago area before enrolling at McDonough, recalls getting an email during his second week on the Georgetown campus inviting him to a major career fair in Los Angeles.

“At first, I thought it was a crazy idea to go to L.A. when I had just started my MBA,” he said. But with encouragement and coaching from the MBA Career Center staff, Vivoda joined a group of other Georgetown students for the trip out west. While he was at the career fair, he interviewed for a summer internship with Johnson & Johnson. He got the internship, and the company subsequently offered him a post-MBA job. Vivoda currently is working in pharmaceuticals marketing for the global health care giant.

“It’s a great company and a great job,” he said.

Other schools also offer pre-enrollment career support, and most make career services a critical part of students’ orientation and early work on campus. “The early weeks are pretty intense for students; employers land here pretty quickly,” said Kudisch. In response, the Smith School has implemented what he calls “a very aggressive career curriculum” for students during their first seven weeks on campus, including “OCS Career Fridays” devoted entirely to career content.

“Customized Career Solutions”

Traditionally, the MBA career services office was seen as a place where employers come and make their pitch to interested students, with one-on-one interviews to follow. But in addition to serving as the go-between for employers and prospective MBA hires, the career office now is a place that offers a full suite of customized services to students as they set out to determine what they want to do with their lives, where they want to work, and how to find the perfect post-MBA job.

“Increasingly, our MBAs want more customized career solutions,” said Amy Wittmayer, director of the MBA Career Management Center at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School. “These are millennials,” she said of an MBA student body whose average age is around 28. “They’re used to individual touch and one-on-one service, and we have to respond to that,” she said.

Wittmayer said she still sees a lot of business schools offering classes in career development as part of their core curriculum—she developed such a course herself while she was at the University of Texas. But after arriving at UNC two years ago, she realized that one-size-fits-all solutions aren’t the best answer for today’s students. As a result, every student at UNC Kenan-Flagler now works on a one-on-one basis with an adviser through a four-phase process that takes them from assessing their industry and job preferences to preparing for interviews and evaluating and accepting job offers.

Charles Crowell, 28, enrolled at Kenan-Flagler after a short, post-college stint in sales in the financial services industry. He had majored in political science at Wake Forest and wanted to become a lawyer. But working in financial services convinced Crowell it was a better fit for him. He started at Kenan-Flagler in the fall of 2011 intent on strengthening his understanding and skills in the areas of accounting and finance.

Crowell said the one-on-one support he received from his adviser in the Career Management Center was crucial. “We started working together very early and it put me on an excellent footing to get my resume and interview skills to where they needed to be,” he said. In January 2012, Crowell interviewed with several companies that came to the UNC campus. One of those companies was American Express, where Crowell ended up working this summer as an intern. At the end of the internship, the company offered him a full-time job. Crowell said he will likely be working there after completing his MBA studies in 2013.

At Georgetown’s McDonough School, the MBA Career Center’s leadership believes so strongly in the notion of individualized support for students that seven members of its staff recently completed 14 weeks of training to become certified career coaches.

McDonough second-year student Olivia Lew said she sat down with her coach “countless times” last year to explore her interests and the opportunities available to her. “It takes a lot of work and self-reflection to figure out what you want to focus on,” said Lew, who dabbled in international development, politics and philanthropy after graduating from Middlebury College in 2008. This summer, she worked in an internship with the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and she hopes to find a post-MBA job in consulting in emerging markets.

Soft Skills Training Key

At many universities, the coaching and other services provided by the career office are premised on the notion that students are gaining the knowledge and technical skills they need to succeed in the workplace via their MBA coursework. Where career services can add value to students’ education and prospects is in helping them develop the “soft skills” that will help them succeed in their networking and interviews, and ultimately in the 21st-century workplace. Sure, the career office and its coaches and staff will help you tone up your resume and cover letters, but they also provide multiple opportunities for you to work on your presentation skills and to become a stronger communicator about the value you bring to a prospective employer.

Kudisch, who has a Ph.D. in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, said a lot of the work of career services is about helping students figure out “who they are and who they want to be.” At the Smith School and at other universities, students often undergo personality assessments and other evaluations so they can develop a more intimate understanding of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as the environments and situations in which they have the best chance of thriving.

“Employers expect that our students will have great technical skills as a result of earning their MBA. What they are really looking for are those candidates with emotional intelligence and a high level of self-awareness,” Kudisch said.

Employers also are looking for candidates who are good storytellers and strong communicators. This is why the Smith School offers students a unique improv workshop taught by acclaimed Broadway actor Marc Kudisch (Jeff’s brother). The workshop, offered each fall, runs students through a series of theatrical exercises designed to build their self-confidence, listening skills and “adaptability in various environments,” according to the Smith School website.

“We want to make sure our students can think on their feet,” Jeff Kudisch said in explaining the importance of the improv workshops, as well as alumni mock interviews and other networking opportunities that allow students to hone their communication and presentation skills. “Survey data tell us that one of the number-one items in the hire/not-hire decision is a student’s ability to articulate his or her value proposition,” Kudisch added. “We want to make sure employers don’t hear the same drab stories all the time.”

“Every MBA student needs to be able to communicate effectively,” agreed Smith School graduate Cara Weikel. She cited the improv workshops and mock interviews with her career services coach, as well as alumni and peers, as “great preparation” for her job search. After a number of interviews during the spring of her first year at the Smith School, Weikel had three offers for summer internships. The one she accepted was with the consulting firm where she now works full time.

“It’s my dream job,” Weikel said. “If I wrote down all the things I wanted in a job, this is it.” And it’s a dream made possible, in part, by the hard work Weikel did with the help and support of the Smith School’s career services team.

Networking Support

Students enrolling in a business school automatically become part of a network that can serve them for the rest of their lives. Their student peers and the alumni of their chosen university are a resource they can draw on for career advice, job leads, and more. Career services offices increasingly are working to help MBA students make the most of this network. Most schools connect students with alumni mentors and advisors, while others create “job search teams” of current students who meet regularly to share leads, ideas and frustrations, and to brainstorm solutions to common problems.

At Loyola University Maryland, which offers a mix of part-time and executive MBA programs and a full-time program for younger graduate students, Career Center staff work closely with the alumni office to facilitate connections between current and former students. For example, students at the university’s Sellinger School of Business regularly avail themselves of Loyola’s Alumni Career Network, which includes 1,200 former students who have signed up to serve as career resources. In addition, Loyola holds an annual Baltimore Career Forum where students and alums have the opportunity to listen to panel presentations on key job and business topics, and to network like crazy. Loyola also convenes regular “Business Breakfasts” in regions with a critical mass of graduates.

“In today’s job market, you have to work a little harder to find opportunities. That requires a lot more networking, and it means students have to be more strategic in how they conduct their job search,” said Andrea Pope, assistant director of Loyola’s Career Center. The university’s extensive alumni network, she said, provides “a ready-made platform” for moving forward and finding the opportunities students want.

Signs of Recovery in MBA Market

An informal survey of business school career services offices suggests a pickup in MBA hiring over the last year or two. Said Amy Wittmayer, director of the MBA Career Management Center at the UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School, “Most schools I talk to have seen an increase in campus recruiting and company interest.”

Since the depths of the recession in 2009, job postings and on-campus interviews at Kenan-Flagler have been on the rise, along with job placement rates and starting salaries (see charts below). “I am cautiously optimistic,” Wittmayer said, noting that hiring trends for MBAs have shifted over the last decade.

“In the old days, one company would hire 10, 20 or even 50 graduates, but now it’s 100 companies hiring 100 people. The employment base is much more fragmented now,” Wittmayer said.

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