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MBA Tales: Searching for Work in a Recession


When members of the MBA Class of 2009 descended on business school two years ago, their expectations were high. The classes before them had been showered with high-paying jobs and lucrative benefits packages upon graduation, and the '09ers had no reason to think that things would be any different for them. But soon after they set foot on campus, things began to change. The economy tanked, internships weren't as easy to find, fewer students came back for their second year with a job offer in hand, and the on-campus recruiting pipeline dried up. Those who were lucky enough to secure a job offer were constantly worried that their start date might be pushed back, or worse, that the offer would be rescinded altogether. Now, a month after graduation, many are still looking for full-time employment.

To the MBA Class that graduated in 2002, the experience sounds eerily familiar. They were the ones who witnessed firsthand what September 11, Enron, and the dot-com bust did to the job market during their two years in B-school. At some schools, five and six job offers to each student dipped to one offer per three students. Many had to put dreams of switching careers on hold. Others accepted positions that were lower on the corporate ladder than expected. For some it took more than a year to find a job, but they survived to tell the tale.

Can the Class of 2009 learn from the experiences of the class that graduated into the last downturn seven summers ago? Yes and no. If there's one thing that members of the Class of 2002 agree on, it's that graduating at a time of economic upheaval is, despite appearances, not the end of the world. All five graduates interviewed for this article landed on their feet. But if the Class of 2009 is looking for rules for navigating a slumping economy, there's really only one: There are no rules. Flexibility and patience will be rewarded in the end, but so too will a single-minded focus and jumping at the first opportunity that comes along. In the end, everyone must discover what works best—for themselves—and make their own way in an economically inhospitable world.

A CAREER SWITCHER STAYS PUT

Aaron McNally graduated from UC-Berkeley's Haas School of Business (Haas Full-Time MBA Profile) in the spring of 2002 without a job. But it wasn't for lack of trying. "I was frantically sending out résumés," he says. No one called. A career switcher, McNally was looking for a tech job—specifically focused on education—after spending his pre-B-school career in the TV industry. The problem, though, was that everyone was applying for tech jobs and most had more experience than he did. "It was brutal," McNally says. To pay the bills as he continued his job search post-graduation, McNally took a part-time position in the Haas admissions office, reading applications and undoubtedly wondering if the applicants knew what they were getting into.

As 2002 turned into 2003, McNally was still without full-time employment. Months earlier he had decided that he didn't have the résumé for a tech/education position. "I had to go back to what I knew," he says. That meant TV. A year after graduation, in the spring of 2003, one of his classmates sent him a job posting with News Corp. (NWS) The job's main function was running financial analysis on new projects for the company's satellite properties. True, it wasn't technology and it wasn't education, but it was a job, and one he was qualified for. McNally applied and was offered the position.

Soon after starting at News Corp. he was moved to the DirecTV division, specifically looking at new non-English language offerings for U.S. customers. He stayed for four years. Then, in early 2007, a position opened up at Google (GOOG) in its newly-formed TV advertising platform. Based on his experience and background, McNally was a good fit for the position. He's been there ever since. McNally was without full-time employment for one year. The poor job market forced him to be flexible about the kind of positions he was looking for. Ultimately, he reverted to his former career path, but in the end he arrived where he wanted to be. "An MBA is a terrific credential," McNally says. "We're the fortunate ones."

A VALUABLE STEPPING STONE

Like McNally, Amy Brooks eventually got the job she wanted. It just took her a few extra steps to get there.

Shortly after Brooks started at Stanford's Graduate School of Business (Stanford Full-Time MBA Profile) in the fall of 2000, it became clear the job market was turning. Second-year students were coming back to campus from their summer internships without full-time offers, and job postings were lacking. "The traditional recruiters—consumer products, automotive manufacturers—were no longer recruiting at Stanford because they felt like the students were ignoring them for the tech companies," Brooks says. "We were faced not only with the bad economy, but also with a lack of recruiters coming to campus."

This wasn't what Brooks had expected when she left her job at Sun Microsystems (JAVA) to enroll at Stanford. Her initial plan was to use the MBA to break into the sports industry, but based on the job and internship outlook, she put the career switch on hold. "I felt very fortunate to get a couple of summer internship offers in management consulting," Brooks says. She accepted a spot with Bain & Co. for the summer and found that she liked the work. She returned to Stanford at the end of the summer with a job offer and a November deadline to accept or decline. "I continued to look around in sports to see if there were any opportunities that were more appealing," she says. "But I really enjoyed my internship with Bain and thought it would be a good stepping stone to where I wanted to be, so I took the job."

Brooks stayed at Bain for three years. In that time she served as a consultant in the firm's San Francisco office working on strategy projects for a variety of Fortune 500 companies. When the sports job she had been longing for came around in the form of a marketing partnerships position at the National Basketball Assn., Brooks was ready, thanks to her time at Bain. "I feel like the consulting experience was a major reason why the NBA saw me as an attractive candidate," she says.

Brooks is now vice-president of team business development for the basketball league and helps teams drive revenue. It's true that the position she accepted right out of B-school was not exactly on the path she was seeking, but it led her to a job she wanted. That's the advice she would give to the Class of 2009. "If you can see a position as a stepping stone to where you eventually want to get to, take it," she says.

NYC VIA SHANGHAI, LONDON, HELSINKI

Stephen Johnston didn't have that stepping stone, but he found that patience and flexibility helped him find the job he was seeking.

In 2002, Johnston, who had interned with the former DiamondCluster, now Diamond Management & Technology Consultants (DTPI), was one of the lucky members of the graduating MBA class who got a job offer out of his summer internship. Many of his classmates would have killed for any offer. But Johnston turned it down. "I wasn't really sure it was what I wanted to do," the Harvard MBA (Harvard Full-Time MBA Profile) says. Instead, Johnston put his job search on hold, bought a one-way ticket, and boarded a plane to Hong Kong. "It was a time when a lot of people were acting like the sky was falling, but I saw it as a great opportunity to explore the world before settling down," he says.

Johnston was certain that with an MBA from Harvard he would eventually be able to find a job, but because the job market was weak, it made sense to him to take some time and gain experience in China. He even thought that he might use the trip to explore for jobs. But after two months traveling in Shanghai and Hong Kong, he was ready to return home. "It was a fantastic experience, but it put me in my place," he says. "I realized that I might have an MBA from Harvard, but I didn't speak Chinese. I didn't have any obvious skills for that particular market."

When Johnston got home to London, he took a consulting gig for Siebel Systems while he ramped up his job search, focusing on his skills and what he really wanted to do, namely work for a big European tech company. He made a list of 10 companies he could see himself working for. At the top was Nokia (NOK). After some research, Johnston found Nokia had a job opening that sounded like a perfect fit. There was only one problem: It was located in Helsinki. "I knew the job was what I wanted, so I had to be flexible about the constraints," he says. He packed his bags and moved to Finland.

Johnston has now been with Nokia for six years. In 2008 he was relocated to New York, where he's currently a senior manager of business development. In retrospect, he's happy he graduated into a less-than-desirable job market. "In easier times, I probably would have just taken the first thing to come along," he says. "Instead, I was forced to really focus on what I wanted. I have no regrets about the circuitous route I took in finding a job that I love."

AN UNYIELDING FOCUS

For Aparna Narang, finding the job she loved required an intense, unyielding focus, even as her classmates changed their plans.

In her second year at North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler School of Business (Kenan-Flagler Full-Time MBA Profile) in the spring of 2002, Narang watched as many of her MBA classmates started looking outside of their areas of interest areas in hopes of securing a job by graduation. "People were definitely more willing to diversify their job search," she says. But Narang wasn't one of them. She had her sights set on finding a position in renewable energy, an area that was on very few companies' radar at the time and one in which even fewer were hiring. "It was a needle-in-a-haystack situation," she says.

Narang started laying the groundwork for her job search immediately after arriving on campus. First, she set up informational interviews with companies. "That helped me get a better understanding of the industry, its players, and what opportunities might be out there," she says. Then she got involved in the Sustainable Enterprise Program on campus, which gave her exposure to people working in the industry. A few of those individuals worked for Dupont (DD) and were able to help her secure a summer internship at the chemical company working on a "solar initiative." Narang was moving in the right direction.

When she got back to campus to begin her second year, it was clear that the job climate had changed. "There simply weren't as many jobs available," she recalls. As her classmates fervently hunted for openings, she continued her search. She began talking with a contact who worked at General Electric (GE) whom she had met earlier in the year through the same Sustainable Enterprise Program where she had found her internship. She didn't know if GE had a position for her, but figured it couldn't hurt to continue the conversation. At worst they could recommend her to someone in the industry who did have an opening.

Over the next six months, the talks with GE became serious until finally, in April, she was offered a position in the company's renewable energy leadership program. In August 2002 she began a three-year stint at GE Wind Energy. She left GE to become a project manager for Horizon Wind Energy, a subsidiary of Spain's EDP Renováveis (EDPR), a global renewable energy company. Today she remains in the renewable energy sector as a development director at Clipper Windpower.

Part of Narang's current role is recruiting new talent, and the qualities she looks for in a hire are the same ones she used to find her needle in the haystack. "I'm impressed by candidates who are sincere about their enthusiasm for the company and the industry and have spent the time really getting to know it," she says. "Focusing specifically on what they are interested in will help them to develop an in-depth perspective that potential employers will value."

THE NETWORK ADVANTAGE

It may be good advice, no doubt, to develop a focus, but in many cases who you know is just as important as what you know. Just ask Eli Murphy.

It had been a year since Murphy graduated with his MBA from Georgetown's McDonough School of Business (McDonough Full-Time MBA Profile) in the spring of 2002, and he was still looking for a job. "I don't think I could have gone much longer," he says. True, he didn't have student loan debts like many of his classmates, thanks to a tuition grant he received because his father was on the law school faculty, but the pressure of being without full-time work was getting to him. Enter his family physician. "I went in for a physical, and the doctor and I got to talking," Murphy says. "I told him that I was looking for work and what I was looking for. He told me he had a number of patients at the Corporate Executive Board (EXBD) and that I might consider checking it out."

Murphy did just that, and was impressed with the company, which provides executive education programs. He submitted his résumé and, soon after, was hired. He has now been at the Corporate Executive Board for six years and is currently senior director of content delivery. Sure, he credits his MBA for preparing him for the job, but it was his connections that got him in the door. "You'll have better success finding jobs through who you know than what you know," Murphy says. "The people I know who find jobs the fastest tend to be the ones who take advantage of the network and who aren't afraid to ask people to take a look at their résumé."

For these five members of the Class of 2002, the job search was much different than expected, but with focus, flexibility, patience, and a little luck, each was able to find the position they were looking for. It just took a them a little longer.

If there's one thing the MBA Class of 2009 can take from the experiences of the 2002 grads, says Haas alum McNally, it's that nothing's forever. "It definitely can get frustrating, but the group of people we're talking about are the lucky ones," he says. "It may not feel that way right now, but anyone that's had access to a great education is in a good spot. Things will work out eventually."

Return to the B-Schools and the Bust Table of Contents.

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