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Venerated Business Degrees Not Guaranteeing Glitzy Gigs

In the late ‘90s, business school graduates had the world at their fingertips: a booming economy, enormous demand for their services, and as many as four or five job offers before finishing third semester. No longer.

The path for newly minted MBAs was straightforward: somewhere between forty and sixty percent of students at the top schools would come from management consulting and investment banking, and more often than not would go back to those two industries after graduation; switching companies, job functions, or both. The current recession has pummeled consulting and banking, and schools and students alike are feeling the heat.

92.6% of Chicago’s Graduate School of Business students had job offers at graduation in 2001. Last year, the number was down to 72.3%. “It’s tough,” says Julie Morten, Associate Dean for MBA Career Services at the GSB. “What we’re seeing is an exceptionally difficult market for second-year full-time recruiting, and that’s bleeding over a bit into summer associate recruiting, as well.”

Things aren’t a whole lot better up at Northwestern, which has seen its class acceptance levels go from 93% in 2000 to 80% in 2002. “People are getting pretty scared,” said a second-year Kellogg student who has yet to receive an offer. “You spend so much money on a degree and you end up fighting for any job you can get.”

Nobody knows exactly how many of those positions are available. The rumor on the Chicago campus is that the big three consulting firms–Bain, BCG, and McKinsey—are keeping their on-campus interviewing numbers high but have trimmed their acceptances drastically. “I think that some of the big consulting firms are trying to maintain demand,” said Emily Trinks, a GSB first-year. None of the three would comment on their recruiting policies.

Conditions have made the usually tough on-campus recruiting scene even tougher. “Company marketing events are like piranha fests,” said Trinks, who recently spent all day in the career services office, hoping that a McKinsey interviewing slot would open up, to no avail.

During the heady days of the dot-com boom, consulting firms and investment banks were throwing five-figure bonuses around left and right at anyone with a good haircut and an MBA from a top school. MBA students didn’t have to do much in the way of scrabbling, as the jobs were simply there waiting to be picked up.

It’s different now. “There’s a denial of reality here,” said Trinks. “Half of our class wants to go into consulting afterwards. I get the sense that it hasn’t really hit home to people here yet, that they have to get a little bit creative.”

Career services departments are doing their part to impart reality to their students, as “off-campus recruiting” (job searching the way everyone else does it) has become a new buzzphrase.

“We’ve rallied the Kellogg community,” said Dave Gent, who runs the Career Development Center at Northwestern’s Kellogg School. “We reach out to alumni, and they’ve responded. We’ve added programming to help students with an off-campus search and introduced networking events.” The GSB has also reached out, putting together a resume book marketed to alumni and corporations with whom the school has a working relationship.

Over at DePaul, things are a bit different. Most of DePaul’s 2600 students already have jobs, and are taking classes at night. “Our students can network with each other,” said Christa Hinton of the DePaul MBA Career Management Center. “It’s a plus.” The school is still pulling out all the stops, hosting networking receptions, art openings, and other events to connect their students with potential employers.

Whether or not these new programs will work is uncertain, as full employment statistics won’t be available until after graduation. Gent is optimistic: “Anecdotally, it seems like people are having a level of better success than last year.” He also thinks that the best students can turn the new realities of the job hunt into a learning experience. “The people who graduated in 1998-1999-2000 didn’t develop the career skills that this generation has been able to do,” he said. “I had a student in the other day who didn’t get an on-campus job for the summer, she said that off-campus looking gave her the skills to be confident in her ability this year.”

The bottom line is that MBA candidates, like nearly everyone else these days, are stressed. The jobless Northwestern student keeps interviewing, calling on alumni, and trying to remain positive. “You have to,” he said. “Otherwise, what am I going to do. Open a restaurant?” Trinks, exhausted from two weeks of intensive on-campus recruiting, is mulling her options. She’d like to get into cosmetics marketing, but how to get in touch with the right people, and who knows if L’oreal is even hiring?

The only certainty for this year’s class is that fifth of them will likely be unemployed, an unthinkable statistic just a short time ago. DePaul seems to be weathering the storm better than other area schools, perhaps due to its deep Chicago connections, or maybe for a simpler reason. “Our students are coming from a good base,” said Hinton. “They’re already employed.”