Where will this year's MBA students end up working, as they emerge a year down the line, clutching hard-won qualifications? There's no doubt that they face not just market downslide, the end or scale of which no one is predicting with certainty, but a sea change in prospects in some areas traditionally targeted by MBAs – even the big name investment banks remaining are shifting ground and moving into commercial loans. Predicting the future has suddenly become much more difficult.
While some schools are waiting to see how markets settle before they are prepared to look into the crystal ball, others offer practical advice about focusing on smaller companies, or the few sectors that are booming, or on finessing job searches. And some good news at least amidst the gloom is that schools and companies are still working together to devise new ways for MBAs to make it up the career ladder.
Marc Smelik of Leeds University Business School is one who views the present scene with a degree of equanimity, whilst warning that the scale of changes make it vital that students get their job hunting acts together as early as possible. "There was already retrenchment in investment banking so it's not clear – yet – just how much difference the present crisis makes", he says.
"In the past banks would have been hiring across the board. Now in the face of a lot more competition from people with good CVs who are out of work, you have to make a very clear business case and prove you are the right person for the job. Do your homework – understand why you're applying and what you're offering.
"Students need to consider applying to medium size as well as large companies and make their job hunting much more structured. There will be a focus on internships, which allow students to find solutions for companies and get those on the CV."
Clare Hudson, Manchester Business School's director of careers management services, agrees. "Increasingly our MBA students want to explore the world of SMEs and entrepreneurship, as a life and career alternative to working for a global investment bank or a large management consultancy firm," she says. "They see the opportunities to expand and develop their learning, working in embryonic and developing businesses."
Hudson cites Manchester's collaboration with consultancy firm Winning Pitch, which will provide project, internship and full-time employment opportunities for MBS students with the firm's small business and entrepreneur clients in the North-west. And in general the consulting industry continues to remain "a steady option" for MBAs, she says.
Henley Business School's director of studies Marc Day suggests students look to the sectors that are booming, like oil, gas and petrochemicals.
"These are firms that have been talking to us about recruitment," he says. "The increase in the oil price has enabled them to build up capital and invest in the longer term. British Gas, for example, is one of the biggest stakeholders in recent oil finds in Brazil."
And schools, like investment companies, benefit from a wide ranging portfolio in these leaner times. Warwick Business School, catering for a broad range of sectors, says it already has a number of recruiters scheduled to meet graduates of the class of 2008-2009.
"As our graduates have more than the average pre-MBA work experience – five to eight years – they would tend to go into specific roles rather than enter lower down the scale as associates," says Carol Rue, director of career development. "Our top sectors for the last three years have included not only financial services but technology and telecoms, pharma and healthcare, retail and energy."
Camila de Wit, careers director at ESADE Business School in Barcelona, says companies that feel they are not so well known as brands are searching for ways to attract talent. "Property management companies, for example, are now investing in rotational schemes whereby MBAs can spend two years working in different sections of the company, and be shown how the business works. Companies are seeing the need to do this to attract and retain talent, as this sort of scheme is very attractive to an MBA," she says.
She adds that companies coming on campus to recruit this October include those from the health, logistics, property management and chemical sectors, with the latter producing "several companies keen to hire MBAs."
Schemes to help new entrants are proliferating. IESE in Barcelona will be giving university students the chance to apply for a young talent programme which will see them working in major companies signing up for the scheme - before they join the school. The students will then return to the same firms when they finish their MBA.
And at Newcastle Business School, in the new year, students will get the chance to showcase their talent to local companies. A new consultancy project will offer small groups of four or five students the opportunity to go out and complete dissertation projects within a company. Businesses will get new input, and the students will get contacts, all the more vital in today's fast changing economic landscape.
'I was offered a job in a major company'
Amit Pandey studied for an MBA at Leeds University Business School.
Amit Pandey is a shining example of how focused MBA students can tailor their skills to what companies now need – even when they are changing sectors in difficult times.
With a first degree from Mumbai in India and a background in IT in the Indian subsidiary of a US company, Amit wanted to study an MBA to learn about the finance and people side of business. "I had concentrated on the technical side," he says. "So I wanted to broaden out. I decided to focus on how new business processes can be streamlined to eliminate waste."
"I used my IT background to implement my ideas and went into a local company to work on a project running on Japanese 'lean management' techniques of identifying waste – things like waiting time and over production".
"Within three months I had a presentation ready for the board on ways of reducing lead times, which resulted in money savings. This was a philosophy which could also be used in the financial sector to help it be lean and effective, key of course in today's circumstances, and I was eventually offered a job in a major financial company. The lesson is to understand what the market needs and work out how to use the skills you have. If the growth is, say, in the energy sector, how can you make the skills you have work there?"