MBA Job Search: Going to Plan B

Posted by: Louis Lavelle on March 30, 2009

With the economy in turmoil, many MBA graduates are finding the job search tough going. To give readers some insight into the strategies they’re pursuing and the difficulties they face, BusinessWeek has recruited four out-of-work MBAs to write about their experiences for a new feature called “The Hunt” that will appear periodically on the Getting In blog. Comments, as always, are welcome.

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By Grant Garcia
I’ll never forget my first trip to Lehman Brothers. It was holiday break and like many other finance MBAs, I was in Manhattan searching for a summer associate position on Wall Street. I visited multiple bulge-bracket banks, searching for the perfect combination of “culture” and “fit” that was scrupulously instilled in my head from recruiters, alumni, and career counselors. I remember walking onto the second floor at Lehman, the trading floor, set in the heart of Times Square. It was in that moment of chaos and commotion of a trading desk that I knew I wanted a job in this industry and at this firm. I had been on trading desks before, but nothing that could match the size, intensity, and character that I experienced at Lehman. After talking with University of Richmond alums that ranked from analyst to managing director, I was certain that this was the firm I wanted to join. As I confidently walked out of the building that bore the name of Wall Street’s most elite, I never would have guessed that my first visit to Lehman Brothers would also be my last.

Watching Bear Stearns and Lehman fail was heartbreaking for me. As a graduating MBA student looking to break into finance, I couldn’t have imagined a worse scenario to be searching for a sales and trading job. The collapse of financial institutions permanently changed the industry landscape for MBAs seeking employment. Over the last year, I have witnessed banks lay off thousands, scale back summer intern classes, and all but eliminate the hiring of new MBA recruits, including me. I had poured all of my time and energy into doing whatever it takes to begin a career on Wall Street, but I soon realized my strategy had to change to ultimately reach my goal. As a result, I have turned my job search to regional and boutique banks hoping to find my first job out of grad school.

The current trend appears to be a flood of applicants to regional banks, making them much more desirable, whereas in the past, regionals were considered second tier to Wall Street for graduating MBAs. When the market began to collapse, I (and many other MBA students) quickly realized that it was time to seek out other options. Instead of struggling with the high-turnover and limited responsiveness of recruiters in New York, I shifted my focus to smaller, regional banks with operations along the east coast. My efforts ultimately landed me a summer position with a boutique investment bank here in Richmond, Va. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to gain industry experience during a time when many of my classmates who were solely focused on the bulge bracket were not able to lock down summer employment. I believe a trend of finance jobs moving to regional banks will continue as business from large distressed banks is shifted around the country. From my outlook on the regional bank market, I am optimistic that I will have the opportunity to join a regional publicly-traded bank in an equity sales and trading role after graduation.

The progress that I have made in my job hunt is closely tied to attending the Richmond MBA program. I have been given incredible access to regional banks and boutiques, which has significantly increased my chances of actually securing a job in this down market and has helped me keep a positive attitude during my search. Richmond is a financial anomaly given the large amount of respectable banks that are located here. As is frequently mentioned in the financial news, many regionals remain in a solid financial position, thereby allowing them to continue hiring in 2009. The added bonus for me is the close proximity to firms that actively recruit for new hires in Richmond. I took advantage of this by attending local networking events to increase my visibility and worked on completing professional certifications to improve my attractiveness to recruiters. Even though graduation from the MBA program couldn’t come at a worse time in the financial markets, I know that by attending this program I had the opportunity to build relationships with regional employers and will hopefully land a job that would not have been possible had I not been in Richmond.

My trip to Lehman Brothers marked the beginning of a very long journey in this industry. We all have to start somewhere, and for me that somewhere is yet to be determined. As much as I wonder what could have been at Lehman, I remain hopeful that my enthusiasm for sales and trading, collection of experiences and MBA education will help me navigate this difficult job market.

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