What do employers say?

UK employers tend not to value MBAs as highly as their counterparts abroad. Emma Haughton reports on how attitudes are beginning to change
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The Independent Culture
Getting an MBA is one thing. Getting employers to take it seriously is another. MBAs have not traditionally commanded the same respect in the UK as in the US, but an increasing number of UK employers are now taking them very seriously indeed.

None more so than top management consulting firm McKinsey. Of its 260 London consultants, around half have MBAs. The company actively recruits 30 to 40 people a year from major business schools such as Insead in France, Harvard and Stanford in the US, and London Business School and Manchester in the UK, and spends around pounds 1 million a year sponsoring its 25 to 30 graduate recruits to complete full-time MBAs at the same institutions.

"Essentially we see an MBA as short cut to business experience," says Julian Seaward, principal partner and head of recruitment for McKinsey's London office. "It enriches people with a lot of management theory, and perhaps a bit of jargon thrown in."

However, the company still prefers MBAs gained abroad. With a longer established reputation in the US, business schools there still have the edge in attracting candidates and faculty, believes Seaward, while Insead has positioned itself as an international school with a more cosmopolitan group and exposure to lots of different nationalities.

"The networking and experience of other cultures is very useful as a lot of our clients are global," says Seaward. "It also takes more drive for someone to get off their butt and go to Insead or the US for a year or two, than somewhere just down the road."

Nevertheless, McKinsey is actively raising its profile over here with a recently-launched scheme offering external candidates sponsorship through a United Kingdom MBA with a guaranteed job afterwards. "It could be someone from a technical or non-business background such as the military, who hasn't had years of business experience so they can walk straight through the door," says Seaward.

With a pounds 50,000 Harvard MBA, McKinsey knows how attractive its staff are to other employers. Those who leave within two years have to repay their sponsorship, but Seaward believes the staff development strategy has a good return rate. "We look for people to develop a long-term career with us, not just an analyst job for a couple of years, and reward high achievers with good salaries and opportunities."

Equally convinced of the value of MBAs is direct marketing company OgilvyOne Worldwide, which recently established an MBA bursary for staff members. Despite hundreds of interviews, the company still has 15 unfilled vacancies, and is increasingly committed to developing its own skills.

"Ten years ago direct marketing was seen as quite short-term and very much about driving sales," says chairman Nigel Howlett. "More recently our clients have seen getting closer to their customers as a strategic imperative, and expect us to be more strategic, solving much more complex business problems for them. The thinking element of what we're offering has increased dramatically."

Howlett believes the MBA's formal education in analytical skills and constructing solutions is a very useful skill set, producing people who see business issues in a holistic rather than piecemeal way.

The company is currently undertaking an evaluation of the best UK schools in which to invest their bursary. With the recent proliferation of institutions offering MBAs, Howlett is concerned that like degrees, not all MBAs are created equal. "There are clear differences in terms of quality, but we're not being snobbish or pompous about it - some of the new universities have established very good reputations for their courses."

But not every company embraces MBAs. In the early 1990s, Shell actually abandoned its own MBA course at Henley when it realised it was not producing graduates who fitted the jobs for which they were destined.

"We're slightly ambiguous towards MBAs," says Andy Gibb, Shell's head of global recruitment. "A lot of Shell's work is technical, while MBAs from leading schools are pitched at a more strategic level. It can be frustrating and unnecessary to be groomed for strategic thinking, when the job you're moving into is not really amenable to that. An MBA is held out in a number of cases as giving people a key to a better job, but we're not convinced - we would rather focus them on technical leadership."

Companies like chartered accountants Price Waterhouse take a more middle- of-the-road approach. While not actively targeting MBAs or recruiting them directly from business schools, a growing proportion of its senior consultants have got them, and it is increasingly on the look -out for MBA graduates.

"Our business is changing from audit and tax management more into consultancy roles," says UK recruitment partner Keith Bell, "MBAs do bring a breadth of vision to the business problem rather than a narrow viewpoint, and that can be an advantage. But the issue is the longer term. If you sponsor someone to do an MBA, will you get them back again?"

However, he believes things may well change in the next few years. "With the stronger history of recruitment from business schools in the States, our US firm has gone further down that track. We may well follow suit, taking a greater interest in MBAs in future."