MBA graduates face the toughest job market for years

But the best prepared and most adaptable are still landing work
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The Independent Online

When Rodrigo Ormaechea graduated with an MBA from London Business School in July, he knew the jobs market was dire, so he set about showing the kind of enterprise he had been taught. Starting with only one contact, Ormaechea, 33, from Uruguay, organised a personal road tour of South America. In three weeks, he travelled through Venezuela, Peru, Argentina, Uruguay and Chile, networking as he went. He set up about 25 interviews. The result was two job offers, one of them from a consulting firm in Chile, which he took.

"At first, I thought it was just an introductory interview," he says. "Then they asked me if I liked doing crazy things. Obviously, I did. Then it was, 'Can you start a new project in 10 days?' I flew back to London, picked up my stuff and returned - and I'm still working on it."

Ormaechea's tour was a textbook example of how to succeed in what business schools agree has been a very tough environment for the class of 2009. As he says, "I took extreme measures because I had to."

While he and thousands of other MBA graduates hunted for work, their progress was anxiously watched by the students who arrived last autumn to start their courses. Record numbers enrolled with institutions such as London Business School, which took 400 MBA students after a 17 per cent rise in applications, and Insead, where the total class at the campus in Fontainebleau, near Paris, numbers almost 1,000.

The good news for these students is that employment prospects seem to be improving. "Things are much better than last year," says Diane Morgan, director of the school's careers service. "Interest picked up in August and September, there was a dip in October and November, but now we're seeing a lot of activity and we're feeling positive. Boston Consulting Group has just made offers. Industry is showing interest, as are the audit houses and the Treasury."

Google was the biggest hirer of London Business School interns last year, followed by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. Three months after graduating, 81 per cent of the class had accepted a job offer .

At Manchester Business School, Clare Hudson, head of careers, agrees that last year was "very tough", but says this year looks slightly better. "Manchester has the advantage that it does not concentrate purely on finance and consulting," she points out.

The same applies to the IMD school in Lausanne, Switzerland, where the course runs from January to December - so graduates are looking for jobs right now. "Our students tend to go in to industry, and it's been very busy recently," says careers director Katty Ooms-Suter. "The difference this year is that companies are recruiting not for projects but for specific vacancies."

Sean Rickard, of Cranfield School of Management, agrees. "The economy is much improved. All the signs point to more buoyant employment prospects."

Though pre-experience Masters courses are increasingly popular (and cheaper), the MBA remains the only generalist higher education business qualification recognised worldwide. It is increasingly taken part-time, but the recession and redundancy payments have boosted the full-time uptake.

At the same time, business schools have been changing curricula to reflect the credit crisis, updating the teaching of risk analysis and derivatives, and incorporating ethics into the programmes. Philosophy in management is among the most popular non-finance MBA courses at Cambridge University's Judge Business School this term.

Britain's reputation for internationalism continues to attract foreign students. Juliet Osbourne, 35, an experienced sales and marketing professional, was working in the Cayman Islands when she signed on for the 15-month full-time International MBA at Portsmouth Business School. She was helped by a £3,000 scholarship. "I really like the diversity," she says. "Grand Cayman has more than 100 nationalities, but here I'm encountering even more people from all over the world, and learning about their customs and their culture."

The weak pound has doubtless helped British schools. The Saïd Business School at Oxford attracted more American students last year than any other nationality. "International exposure should be part of one's education, so the American model is not necessarily appropriate," says the school's dean, Colin Mayer. But to get the most out of the experience, students need to be focused, he says. "In the past, we have observed people attempting what we call the triple jump - they're trying to change country or continent, to change sector and to change the job that they've got. It's much harder to achieve all three now. But people who have the relevant background and experience are still getting jobs."

Some are keen to start their own business, and social entrepreneurism remains popular. "But entrepreneurism also applies to career development - marketing yourself as if you were a company," says Mayer. Students often find that an internship or project, undertaken during the Easter break or in the summer, can later lead to a job, and to secure these some schools have made their courses more flexible.

"We've never had a formal internship programme after our one-year programme," says Karen Siegfried at Judge, which has just launched its first executive MBA. "Instead, we had an individual project that was an academic dissertation. But for next summer we've introduced the option of taking a formal internship.

"If anything, we're benefiting from the current economic climate, because companies can see the advantage of having access to a team of five well-qualified Cambridge MBAs at no cost to themselves."

Careers offices have been pressing their alumni and teaching staff for job contacts. At Insead, where students are increasingly moving to the energy, healthcare, telecommunications and high-tech sectors, alumni have provided almost 100 new job postings. The school's secondary campuses in Singapore and Abu Dhabi have been a great help, says Frank Brown, the dean. "Students can make contact directly with potential employers in Asia and the Middle East. The most effective thing in terms of jobs is just to be there."

Despite constantly changing visa regulations for incoming students (and some frustrating hold-ups for schools) most MBA students can expect to get work permits to remain in Britain after their course is finished, provided their paperwork is in good order. At Bournemouth University Business School, all but one of last year's students were international and most have taken jobs here.

Students are also being given help with interview techniques and CVs to make sure they are prepared for their coming job hunt. All students entering ESCP Europe Business School's London campus, for example, now have two mentors from day one - a recent graduate as well as a senior alumnus.

Jeanette Purcell, chief executive of the London-based Association of MBAs, which now accredits 161 schools worldwide, agrees that the jobs market has been hard, but says that schools are much better about managing expectations than they used to be.

Early indications are that next year's applications are likely to be as high as this year's. Prospective students should make sure their MBA is accredited, says Purcell. "I would say that, obviously - but unaccredited schools simply aren't recognised in the market.

"And they should make sure the school is right for them. I'm always surprised at the number of students who don't go to a school first to check it out."

'Internships are very important'

Anshuman Bhardwaj, 32, from northern India, was in IT consulting for eight years and enrolled at Manchester Business School in 2008 with an eye to changing careers.

His chance arrived last summer when the school found him and two other students an internship with the Portuguese national energy agency, advising on energy efficiency strategy in advance of the Copenhagen climate summit.

"The project involved analysing the feasibility and marketing of energy-saving schemes and the use of micro-generation technologies. We also identified financial incentives in the form of grants and subsidies, and we presented the findings in November at the Expo Energy Summit in Lisbon," he says.

"Internships are very important if you want to make a change in your career. I want to work in the energy sector and now I have something solid to include on my CV - something for me to talk about at interviews."

Daniel Sheratte, 47, is in the first year of a part-time MBA at Manchester Metropolitan University Business School.

"My background is in hospitality - anything from restaurants, hotels, health and fitness clubs, golf and country clubs. But with the recession, there was a downturn in business, particularly on the corporate side," he says.

"I'd wanted to do an MBA for many years. With some redundancy money and some time on my hands, it seemed like the right time to do it. It's very stimulating.

"It's a block course - I go in every three days every six weeks, which suits me. The course lasts for two and a half years, including the dissertation.

"Going back to studying after 28 years is a big challenge. There's a lot of background reading. I'm married with two children, but I try to make sure it doesn't affect their lives. I have a son doing his A-levels this year and we're having some interesting conversations about economics. The next step is to find employment, but I've just started a little consultancy work, which fits well with the MBA."

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