The first time I saw a significant hit to the jobs market for business school graduates was two decades ago in the wake of the bursting of the initial internet bubble and the events of 9/11. Talking to people in career services departments at the time was a dispiriting experience. Mainly because few, if any, had anticipated the downturn in what had seemed to be an impervious hiring process.
The MBA careers panels that I have hosted in the past month with the Poets & Quants Editor-in-Chief, John A. Byrne are a lot more reassuring. Directors of Career Services from 23 of the top 25 US and European business schools who joined us for the CentreCourt MBA Festival described a resilient hiring market for their MBA graduates of the Class of 2020. They shared details of both sectors that remain committed to hiring top talent, including firms in consulting, tech, telecoms, supply chain and healthcare, and the analytical skills and characteristics of adaptability and resilience developed during the MBA that will serve them well.
While not exactly relishing the experience, most careers specialists appear to be keeping calm and carrying on, adapting to the circumstances forced upon us by the pandemic and developing ways to support students through the current uncertainties. Many speak of the proactive support of alumni who have themselves endured downturns such as the financial crisis a decade ago.
There is no doubt that Covid-19 has meant that business school graduates around the world are facing up to and dealing with a wide raft of unprecedented challenges – some ubiquitous, some specific to their local market. In the first of three articles I’m going to look specifically at what’s happening in the world’s longest established business education markets, starting with the UK.
For British business schools hiring challenges start in their own back yard. According to the monthly Recruitment Trends Snapshot from The Association of Professional Staffing Companies (APSCo) the number of professional and managerial jobs on offer in the UK in April was down 56% on the same time last year.
However, according to Zoe McLoughlin, Head of Employer Engagement at London Business School, that doesn’t mean the MBA hiring market – either in the UK or globally – has stalled by any means. “All of the big structured programmes within banking and consulting, and the big diversified programmes are honouring the offers they’ve made,” she says. “We haven’t seen any rescind at all which is fantastic news”. The school has seen some changes to start dates for the graduating Class of 2020. “Some are looking at a start date – especially in the client-facing industries – six to eight months down the road rather than immediately after graduation. But the full-time role is there so that’s the main thing. The key message we are getting from employers is that they don’t want to shut off the talent pipeline. I think they’re just being a lot more considered about how they approach it and certainly I don’t see any big shut-offs coming up. I think there might be a few push backs, a few slowdowns, but at the moment we are cautiously optimistic for our graduating class.”
This cautious optimism is echoed at many other British schools including Alliance Manchester in the north of England. “At the moment there’s still a lot of uncertainty in the market with many organisations waiting to see what happens,” says Chris Garnett, Head of Postgrad Careers and Employability. “However, particularly those with a long history of hiring MBAs have been positive in their messaging and very supportive to current students.” What appears to be key is that many potential employers seem to have resisted knee-jerk reactions and instead taken a more strategic approach to hiring thanks to the widespread adoption of talent pooling and pipelining since the early 2000s.
“It is a good sign that, not long after the lockdown and the initial rescission or postponement of job or internship offers, a great number of companies have continued with their recruitment activities or initiated new ones, based on the new circumstances,” says Maria Tsianti, Head of Careers and Student Services at ESCP Business School’s London campus. “A small number of employers have felt that there are still a number of challenges to be addressed but, overall, most have adapted promptly to the new reality.”
Several of the careers specialists I spoke to pointed out that there is a lot of variation in the overall hiring market because the crisis has hit some sectors – aviation and tourism being obvious examples – very hard while others are still holding the line. Others still, such as pharmaceuticals and tech, are even being presented with new business opportunities. “Key sectors that we believe will provide graduates with opportunities include technology, technology consulting and big data,” says Neil Armstrong, International Engagement and Careers at Durham University Business School. “This is due to the need for increased collaboration, efficient business operations and insight to make better decisions in an unpredictable environment.” Alliance Manchester’s Chris Garnett takes a similar line. “There is no one area that remains unaffected by the current situation, but a number of the large employers in the tech space remain very much in hiring mode, and students and graduates are learning to adapt to the remote interviews and assessment centres they are adept at using, which is a new experience for many.”
Of course this doesn’t mean that simply targeting any company and any job in the tech sector will be some sort of universal panacea for anxious business school students. A more thoughtful and considered approach is likely to be much more effective according to Kathryn Saunders, Careers Consultant in the Department of Management at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). “Current job listings paint a mixed picture across the technology sector,” she says. “While some big names have reported cuts, other tech giants have thousands of vacancies worldwide. We expect to see opportunities for business school and management graduates in digital transformation, strategy and business intelligence. Graduates should consider which companies are thriving (or even simply surviving), including providers of tools and capabilities for remote working, data storage, cyber security, e-commerce and entertainment.”
At UCL School of Management in London, Kate Gault acknowledges that any optimism has to be tempered by reports such as the Institute of Student Employers survey that suggests more than a quarter of businesses will be reducing the number of graduates they recruit in 2020 with a further 28% still unsure of the impact on recruitment numbers. However she also believes that, while business school post-graduate students won’t be immune to the impact of emerging into a highly competitive labour market, the benefits of their specialised and advanced education present an opportunity to stand out from the crowd. But they are going to have to work at it. “It will all be dependent on their ability to accurately articulate their valuable skillsets to employers,” she says, “on being alert to the new skills that may be required as employers adapt, as well as potentially reframing their career thinking to identify areas of growth in the current climate.”
And it seems that this type of adaptability and agility may be crucial to securing not just any job but the right one in this new, topsy-turvy world. “Looking ahead, it is likely that, regardless of industry, recruiters will value different types of skills to those they focussed on previously, such as technical skills to manage work flow, projects and communications,” saysLisa Umenyiora, Executive Director of Careers at Imperial College Business School. “Graduates who can demonstrate strong online communications skills and the ability to manage teams and projects remotely will be in high demand from employers as they show their ability to lead in a technology-driven world. However the ability to work in a VUCA – volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous – environment, demonstrating resilience, flexibility, and the ability to manage change will be absolutely vital.”
Margaret O’Neill, Head of MBA Careers at Cambridge Judge Business School urges MBA graduates to be the solution. “There is no better place to be than business school to use those skills of innovation and agility to really add value to companies – you are the change leaders in the world.”
During a CentreCourt MBA Careers Panel, O’Neill shared the thoughts of one of a current Judge MBA student, who sees opportunities in the midst of the current challenges. “Graduating in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic leaves us with uncertainty and questions our long-term plans and goals, all while prompting us to quickly adapt, perform and show results. I wouldn’t graduate business school any other way or any other time. Ambiguity and uncertainty gives us a tremendous opportunity to make an impact, to help turn economies around, and to think out of the box while taking paths that are less travelled.”