MBAs Look For High-Paying Jobs In Down Market

MBAs are still getting hired — but the job market is tougher now. Fewer jobs are being offered, signing bonuses have shrunk and students who've taken on a lot of debt to get their degrees are getting nervous.

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And with all that turmoil on Wall Street, these are trying times for graduates of business school, graduates who might be looking for work. Hiring hasn't come to a complete halt, but it's a tight market for graduates who used to have their pick of high-paying jobs. From Seattle, NPR's Wendy Kaufman reports.

KAUFMAN: MBA students at the University of Washington's Foster School know their timing isn't great. Trying to land a high-paying job in a down economy isn't the easiest thing to do. Nate Solstrum(ph) is 29. He used to tour with a band and did a stint in finance before going back to graduate school.

Mr. NATE SOLSTRUM (MBA Student): One of the things I found that's challenging about remaining optimistic is that it's difficult to open the Economist or the New York Times without seeing doom-and-gloom headlines about the job market. That kind of weighs down on your optimism.

KAUFMAN: Also weighing on Solstrum's mind is the competition he'll face from experienced MBAs who've been laid off. He recently lost out on a mid-level job that went to a former chief financial officer. What's more, as fellow student Chris Comer(ph) has seen, many companies are unsure about their hiring plans.

Mr. CHRIS COMER (MBA Student): There have been some companies that have come on campus, conducted interviews, and then instead of calling people back for a second interviews say that the budgets are frozen and they're not hiring.

KAUFMAN: Students are understandably nervous because many took out sizable student loans with the expectation their degree would bring them a top salary. But Paula Klempay, director of the MBA career center at the University of Washington, tries to look on the bright side. Yes, she says, the market is tighter. But just how tight, we don't really know. Still, she says, businesses are still looking for students with the skills that come with an MBA.

Ms. PAULA KLEMPAY (Director, MBA Career Services, University of Washington): It's very quantitative, it's analytical, it's strategic, and they still need that. They need it now more than ever.

KAUFMAN: To make her point, we take a short walk to the giant bulletin board outside her office. She points to the full-time jobs that have been offered and accepted.

Ms. KLEMPAY: This is one of our Microsofts. We've got a number of other students in play at Microsoft right now. This was Intel. This is Amazon. This gentleman has gone to Scotia Capital. We've got a couple in consulting.

KAUFMAN: But there's no denying there are fewer job offers being made. MBA candidates have fewer offers to choose from. And, says Chris Comer...

Mr. COMER: More and more, I think, we're lowering those expectations of signing bonuses.

KAUFMAN: Signing bonuses have been a mainstay for top MBA hires. The biggest bonuses, sometimes as much as $50,000, came from Wall Street. That put pressure on other employers to offer them as well. But now, with a number of Wall Street firms out of business and others in serious trouble, many bonuses are shrinking. Still, Professor Peter Cappelli of the Wharton School suggests that things are not as bleak as you might expect. He says beyond the skills that MBAs bring, banks, consulting firms, and others are making a strategic bet. By hiring now, they keep the pipeline of new talent flowing.

Professor PETER CAPPELLI (Management, Wharton School of Business): In 2001, when the economy went south, the consulting firms, and to some extent the banks as well, stopped hiring quite dramatically. And they discovered a couple of years later that, you know, they didn't have any third-year associates to supervise and help teach the first-year people coming in, and it messed up the way their work was organized. So I think they more or less concluded after that that they were going to try to do what they could to avoid repeating that situation in the future.

KAUFMAN: MBA candidate Comer says he's heard from some regional consulting firms that they expect more business as companies that need the skills of MBAs but don't want to hire full-time staff turn to them. Comer, whose background is in media buying and online advertising, says he hopes to land a job that he's excited about within a couple of months. If not, he has a plan.

Mr. COMER: In the worst-case scenario, I wait it out. I'm expecting my first baby in about four weeks, and so either I get a job that pays me more than it would cost for daycare, or I become Mr. Mom for a few months.

KAUFMAN: Win-win, he calls it, pausing for a moment to add, provided my wife still has her job. Wendy Kaufman, NPR News, Seattle.

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