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With MBAs facing a hiring slowdown, career professionals offer some tips for making every contact count
It's not officially the recession of '08 yet—but graduates and career counselors at business schools are already planning for one.
The mood on B-school campuses certainly wasn't helped by the news on Apr. 3 that JPMorganChase (PM)—which is acquiring investment house Bear Stearns (BSC)—was rescinding some internship and full-time job offers made by Bear Stearns recruiters (BusinessWeek.com, 4/3/08).
Business schools are advising students to remain calm, be flexible, and maintain their professionalism no matter what happens. After all, even the immediate future is unpredictable. "The difficulty today is the great level of uncertainty," says Timothy Butler, director of career development programs at Harvard Business School, where administrators recently held a strategy session to discuss career planning needs should the situation get worse. "No one is sure if this is the beginning of a slowdown, or a recession," Butler said.
Employers Raising the Bar
Regardless of what the statisticians call it, MBAs and undergraduate business students are already facing a more difficult job hunt. Although most top business schools say they aren't seeing declines in the number of students with job offers yet, they have noticed recruiters are tightening their belts and starting to show more concern about the troubled economy.
Even undergrads seeking summer internships, which generally are more cost-effective for employers, are having trouble. A number of investment banks have reduced hiring needs for summer analysts, and there are fewer positions than last year, says Lee Svete, director of the career center at the University of Notre Dame's Mendoza College of Business undergraduate program . Still, there are jobs for those who are willing to step up their game plan and résumé. "The most competitive students, those candidates with a 3.7 to 4.0 GPA with leadership experience on campus, have found summer internships," adds Svete. "It seems like employers have raised the bar in terms of selecting candidates."
BusinessWeek recently asked a number of career counselors at top business schools for advice on how they're advising students. For starters, they stressed staying focused and optimistic, and sticking with career planning basics—from self-assessment to stressing their fit at a particular company by matching skills with the employer's needs. Here are some other tips they've come up with:
Have a Backup Plan, or Two
After working so hard to earn an MBA or undergraduate degree, many people feel as though they shouldn't settle for anything but their dream job. But there are many roads to paradise, say career advisers. Butler, for instance, asks students to create a vision for the next five to seven years of their life. Then he has them work through the vision backwards to see the different roles that might help them reach their ultimate goal. "The best job-seekers have not only a Plan A (dream jobs), but also a Plan B (one aspect of their dream job but maybe not all) and a Plan C (roles that can lead to your dream job in a year or two)—and they pursue all three plans simultaneously," says Rebecca Joffrey, associate director of the career development office at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College. "This approach maximizes your chance of getting offers. Then, you can choose among them."
Those who are willing to work a little outside their comfort zone in a different function or industry or geographic region will open up more doors for themselves. For example, if your goal is investment banking, but you have no banking experience, you should also pursue positions in corporate finance to gain skills, says Everette Fortner, executive director for corporate relations at Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia.
Taking a longer-term view comes in handy when thinking about your flexibility, too. "Students often overlook outstanding positions that can offer fantastic learning and skill development opportunities because they are unwilling to live in a city other than New York or San Francisco," says Michelle Antonio, director of Wharton MBA Career Management at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School. Working for smaller firms that are not as well known as major corporations, she adds, sometimes offers more advancement and growth.
STAND OUT WITH NETWORKING SKILLS
Getting good grades and appropriately flaunting your talents are a given. But there are other things you can do to make a splash with potential employers. "In this age of e-mail, instant messages, and blogs, picking up the phone and actually cold-calling people can help you stand out," says Karin S. Ash, director of the career management center at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. Once you use your network to get an in, you must demonstrate the value you can bring to the group, says Joffrey.
Making connections, in fact, is of the utmost importance. The key to networking correctly, say career advisers, is to be kind and courteous and stay in touch with your network periodically, regardless of your job situation at the time. Give your contacts help whenever you can, so they will return the favor.
That said, you don't want to come off as too needy. "In an economic downturn, students' actions could reflect desperation (too many annoying follow-up calls, not building relationships, just asking for the job, etc.)," Char Bennington and Julia Zupko, senior associate directors of career services at University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, write in an e-mail. "This should be avoided."
NEGOTIATE WITH CARE
Match your salary offers to those from the class before you. (Many career offices at top business schools keep such records for students to peruse.) Expect that those salaries will stay about the same because of the slowdown, says Ash. Realize that negotiating a higher salary isn't always the best move. "Candidates have jeopardized and lost their offers in the past because of appearing insensitive to the economic concerns of an employer, but even if that doesn't happen, always ask yourself if the salary issue is truly important enough for you to take on the risk of creating a negative impression of yourself," says Antonio.
Still, most advisers say that negotiating isn't out of the question during a slowdown, but you don't always have to ask for more money. You might also ask for perks such as the chance to work on a particular project. The important thing is to show your appreciation and understanding of the company's concerns when you ask.
REPORT RESCINDED OFFERS
The first step after a company rescinds an offer is to inform the career services office at your school. Some offices have strict policies about this, and the company could lose out on talent from the school in the next year. In addition, most career advisers help students in this situation to work out some sort of deal, such as compensation while candidates look for something else.
Everyone advises that if a job offer is taken away, students should be professional and keep the lines of communication open with the company. Many employers are willing to hire these students down the road when the economy bounces back.
Whatever you do, never feel sorry for yourself, says Eric Mokover, associate dean of career initiatives at UCLA Anderson School of Management's MBA program. Potential employers will smell your fear and disappointment, which will make you less likable and confident in the interview.
Recruiters can tell if you are down on yourself or their company, so keeping a good attitude is important. Ash suggests students work in groups to keep each other motivated and accountable for weekly goals like calling a number of contacts. That will also help keep you from procrastinating, which could be your death in an economic downturn.
Most career advisers say students have to keep the job search in perspective and realize that downturns are cyclical and never permanent. Create a situation for yourself that will not dash your ego or hopes. "If you focus on one job and lose it, it's a crushing experience," says Butler. "But if you adjust your expectations, you'll see the movement toward [your] vision will happen in smaller steps."