Is the present upturn in the recruitment of MBA graduates a blip or a growing trend? Either way, says Hilary Wilce, you still need to stand out from the crowd to land your top job

Are the good times ready to roll again for MBA graduates? For years things have been tough for those coming out of business schools and onto the job market, but could it all be about to change?

Well, yes and no. On the one hand there are encouraging movements in the recruitment market. But the stirrings are slow and cautious, and seem set to continue that way. So anyone thinking about doing an MBA still needs to think carefully about why they want to do it and what they can realistically hope to get out of it in the end.

Which is not to underestimate the good news. After years of inactivity, the traditional hirers of MBA graduates - banks and consulting firms - are showing an interest in recruiting again. Morgan Stanley, for example, expects to recruit almost twice as many MBA graduates this spring as last. And many of last year's graduates have found it easier to get jobs than their immediate predecessors.

"The number of vacancies we've identified between September and November this year have gone up five-fold compared to last year, although you need to bear in mind that a year ago figures were the worst they had been for a long time," says Michael Osbaldeston, director of Cranfield School of Management. "More organisations are looking to hire, including financial services and consulting firms. And we're seeing growing interest in some areas of manufacturing." However, with more and more MBA graduates flooding the market, employers are asking tough questions like: what sort of MBA has this person got, and where did they get it? And: what makes them different from everyone else?

"You have to have the right mix of skills," says Anna Keelan, careers services manager of Imperial College's business school. "We're never going to go back to the days when raw potential was enough. People are looking for experience. They're looking for leadership, communication, motivational and creative skills."

As a result, she says, the days when having an MBA alone was enough to wave you into the fast lane are long gone and students need to be realistic about what the qualification will do for them. "What we want is students to be very clear about what they are doing this for, so we can support them. We still get a few saying 'Where's the milk round, then?' but most understand it isn't like that now."

Even so, things are getting better, and the movement is worldwide. IESE Business School, in Barcelona, Spain, says both banks and consulting firms are showing more interest in MBAs, and pharmaceutical and consumer goods companies are looking to fill positions during 2004. "In addition, we are seeing more companies coming on campus to present management training programmes especially designed for MBAs to fast-track their careers and get into key management positions," says Carina Gemperle, director of communications.

"Companies are much more keen to have a presence on campus, but I wouldn't say we are in a state of over-excitement," says Cecile Buckenmeyer, manager of career management services for the Manchester Business School. "What we're hoping for is that it will translate into a definite trend."

And at the London Business School there is similar caution, although Graham Hastie, careers service director, predicts jobs will open up soon. "There has been so little movement for so long that lots of people are now sitting in jobs beyond their shelf life. Employers are having to start recruiting."

"Certain markets are doing better globally, and companies which cut back so drastically in the past are now having to hire," agrees Elaine Hewens, careers development director at Warwick Business School. "But there's still an element of nervousness about whether this is a full recovery or only a blip. It's certainly not an employee's market." However, she points out: "When the market's flat it can actually be quite a good time to do an MBA. You can get the theory background and build your skills and then go back into the market, when things are more buoyant."

And while the traditional MBA graduate headed straight for a fat salary in the City, today's graduates are as likely to go into the public or non-profit sector, join start-up companies or set up their own business as to head for a traditional MBA job. Australian rugby league player Andrew Willett, founded an elite sports medicine service in Britain after completing his MBA at Saïd Business School, Oxford. "As a professional rugby player, I had spent years and years in and out of sports medicine practices back in Australia and nothing like what I had seen back home existed here," he says. As part of his course he developed a business plan and presented it to a group of venture capitalists. With a fellow student, he set up Pure Sports Medicine, which started operating last February and already acts as consultant to Manchester City FC and a number of Zurich Premiership rugby clubs.

And Claire Toombs, finance director of MacIntrye Care, a learning disabilities charity, who completed her MBA at Cranfield four years ago, says, "Voluntary organisations are now often competing against and working with the commercial sector as service providers and we need to be more efficient to function effectively." She says one of the biggest bonuses of doing an MBA was working alongside commercial colleagues and learning from them.


Paritosh Desai, 35, is a doctor specialising in orthopaedics. He worked for 10 years in medicine before starting an MBA at Manchester Business School

I spoke to a few people and they said the best way forward would be an MBA. It would open doors. Initially I wanted to move away from medicine altogether, but since I have been doing the course I realised that I could best work as a manager in the health service, or in some other public-sector management role.

I knew with the market conditions that I wouldn't be offered a job in the City. It is a buyer's market, so I had to face up to the fact I could start from the bottom in some other field, or I could use my medical background and experience to get me a better job in the field I know.

It has been a very interesting experience, especially the internships. Last summer I worked on the strategic side, in one of the first foundation hospitals. I did not have a clue about working in an office environment. It has also been interesting to be studying alongside people from other fields. Doctors are made to believe that somehow they are the best, but I've discovered there are a lot of intelligent and interesting people doing other things.

And I've learnt a lot about finance and business. Now if I go to the bank to discuss my mortgage, I can actually ask them some sensible questions!


Nobert Modla, 30, studied economics and business at university in Budapest before working as a management consultant. He is studying a full-time MBA at the London Business School

I worked for six-and-a-half years after university, but after a while I thought that I would like to revisit my beliefs on business and management. I wanted to be a student again, and I wanted to take some time away from work and invest some time in myself. The intellectual challenge was definitely one reason I wanted to do an MBA. I also wanted to study either in London or in the US. London is one of the capitals of global business so I saw doing an MBA there as a chance to do some networking, and to see what's going on.

It's costing me £39,000 so I obviously need to get a return on my investment. But you can't measure it only in financial gain. One of the things I have enjoyed most has been the class discussions. Everyone has got a story in my study group.