With an enormous sigh of relief US business schools confirmed this summer that the dearth of jobs for graduating Master of Business Administration students is coming to an end. But, behind the scenes is the sober realisation that neither MBA students nor US business schools can treat the employment market with such arrogance ever again.
Although employment statistics are still patchy, the top programmes are reporting stellar results. At Harvard Business School (HBS) between 91 per cent and 92 per cent of the graduating class had offers on graduation, and 83 per cent of them had accepted a job. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology more than 90 per cent of students had offers on graduation, up from 82 per cent last year. At MIT, campus recruiting by companies was up by 15 per cent and job postings -- where companies advertise specific jobs on the school website -- were between 30 per cent and 40 per cent higher than last year.
However, the days when the job of a careers officer involved no more than sitting back and letting the jobs flow in are definitely over. So, too, is the era in which graduating students collected job offers as a top athlete collects medals.
All of which is good news, believes Margaret Andrews, executive director of the MBA programme at MIT's Sloan School of Business. "What I like about students now is that they are not collecting job offers ... Whether you have 20 offers or whether it is really, really hard, the problem is the same -- it's fit."
Most students now realise that if they hold job offers they do not want, they are keeping those offers from students who need them, she says.
At Harvard, Matthew Merrick, managing director of MBA career services, says that the strong numbers there reflect both the upturn in the market and the efforts of students and staff. "The students did a fantastic job and worked really hard on being focused." Rather than looking at 20 industries, he says, they we concentrating on the ones that were right for them.
Graduating students were particularly open to job search strategies suggested by the school, he says. For example, HBS has launched a career coaching programme and this year between 70 per cent and 80 per cent of MBAs participated in it. This involved seven Harvard staff and 18 alumni of the school being coached in how to coach. All of them could then teach strategies and tactics to the students. Between them, these 25 had experience of most leading industries.
Other business schools have gone further in building career strategies into the MBA experience. At Boston University, for example, the MBA curriculum has been redesigned to require all students to complete career preparation courses before they can graduate.
"If they [MBAs] come to graduate school to learn finance or marketing, that's great," says Jennifer Lawrence, assistant dean for career services. "But if they don't know how to manage their careers, we've failed them."
Moreover, the business schools themselves are learning the sort of marketing lessons they teach their students. Harvard, for example, has a four-person marketing team that has been "selling" its students in Paris and London. The move is a sign of the times, as international students graduating from US business schools are finding it increasingly difficult to get jobs in the US. The problem is the time and the money involved -- a company has to spend $10,000 (£5,390) and hours of additional time if it wants to recruit a non-US national.
The situation is "not getting better", says Matthew Merrick and, although all the numbers have not yet been crunched, he says there is a real sense at Harvard that more graduates are taking jobs outside the US.
One of the most interesting factors is that at some schools, non-US graduates are faring better at securing job offers than their US counterparts. Such is the case at the Haas school at Berkeley, and at the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, where Julie Morton, associate dean for career services, says international students are marginally ahead. "From the outset they had realistic expectations," she says.
Students graduating from the west coast are also seeing an upturn in the market. At Berkeley, Abby Scott, career centre director, says campus recruiting was up 20 per cent this year and the number of job postings was up 43 per cent. She says "old-fashioned" technology companies, such as Intel and Microsoft, have been hiring this year, as well as newer technology-based companies such as Google, Yahoo and Electronic Arts. She believes there are still lots of jobs in the Bay Area in sectors such as biotechnology.
Schools famous for inculcating technology skills have been particularly successful this year. The Tepper school at Carnegie Mellon, for example, has seen offers up by 15 per cent. According to Ken Keeley, executive director of the career opportunities centre at the Tepper school, 153 companies made offers to Carnegie Mellon MBAs this year, compared with 99 last year. "People are getting their feet back in the game."
One of the main indicators that the jobs are back is when management consultancies and investment banks begin to hire again. Both are now back in the market, although Mindy Storrie, director of graduate career service at the KenanFlagler school at the University of North Carolina and recently appointed president of the MBA Career Services Council, believes management consultancies have changed the way they hire MBAs.
"Our sense is that they're winning contracts and then looking for the resources rather than employing the resources and then going out and winning business."
She does report, however, that UNC has seen a 100 per cent increase in finance and banking companies scheduling interview slots for the autumn, potentially to hire MBAs for the class graduating in 2005. All of which must be very good news for students beginning their programmes this autumn.