The US job market is on a tear, but that does not guarantee MBA students well-paid jobs at top firms – especially overseas students who face hostile visa rules.
Several business schools have reported record starting salaries and employment rates for this year’s MBA class, yet they say the degree is far from enough on its own to ensure employment.
Corporate recruiters want to see strong work experience, a convincing “why” for their companies, plus technical and communication skills, says Daniel Couladis, associate director of the MBA Career Center at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business.
“Don't just focus on the potential increase in salary as you'll need these critical building blocks — not just the MBA — to get there,” he says.
The US unemployment rate hit a 50-year low in September after more than eight years of consecutive job growth in which employers from the manufacturing to the healthcare sectors have more open positions than they can staff. Some European countries also boast strong economies and job markets, such as Germany.
This has been reflected in the employment reports coming out of top US business schools in recent months. At NYU Stern School of Business in New York, the employment rate three months after graduation was than highest in more than a decade at 94 percent, led by robust hiring in the consulting, investment banking and technology sectors.
Median salaries also increased 12 percent since last year, reaching an all-time high of $140,000. University of Chicago Booth School of Business also increased its median starting salary and signing bonus by 12 percent from 2018 to $163,900, thanks to a war for talent between consulting and finance firms.
At University of Virginia Darden School of Business, the same pay package rose nearly 7 percent to $162,000 year-over-year. And the proportion of graduates getting job offers within three months hit a record at 97 percent.
Michigan Ross School of Business also set a record this year for job acceptances after three months, at 96 percent.
These impressive figures were reported despite many top schools reporting plunges in application volume – there were double-digit declines this year at several, including Dartmouth Tuck School of Business and Kenan-Flagler Business School.
Is now a good time to get an MBA?
The job market should not be the only consideration, but it’s an important one for prospective students. Is now a good time to get an MBA?
Tony Somers, director of employer engagement at HEC Paris in France, says: “There is never a bad time to do an MBA – it’s the best step that someone can take to pivot their career in a new direction and complete their business knowledge. In good times, it just means you’ll probably pick up a job more easily.”
But “no matter how good the job market is, the competition is always fierce”, he says.
HEC Paris encourages a three-step approach to a job search: knowing what you are good at and motivated by; knowing the job market, and whether the company will suit you; and matching yourself to the right opportunities.
Couladis at McDonough School says the key component of a job search is networking. “Students should learn from people who work in their desired functions, industries, and target companies,” he says. “How has their career progressed? What advice do they have?”
But too often students come on too strong, he says. “If your approach comes across that you want to connect because you want them to push your candidacy forward, you probably won't ever get the chance to even have a conversation.”
Better to “have great conversations” as they can lead to great things, says Couladis.
Happily, abundant resources are available to MBA candidates to help facilitate their job search and interview process. At McDonough, career counselors work with students to create a personalized job search plan and strategize the best ways to get in front of those target companies.
It also prepares students for the different phases of the job search including networking, LinkedIn presence and professional branding, resume and cover letter creation, interview preparation and offer negotiation.
Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke Fuqua School of Business, adds that in addition to working closely with career services, a student can also leverage practical learning opportunities and engage with industry or research centers in a field of interest.
This expands students’ experience and network, “both of which increase the value of the student’s investment in the MBA degree”.
Skills you need to land a great post-MBA career
What are the skills that employers want most right now? Dirks says that a strong “fit” with the role and organizational culture is prized, as are problem-solving skills, and the ability to work collaboratively with people.
“There’s a difference between finding any job and finding a job that’s a great first destination after graduation,” she says.
This tallies with the advice of Jeff McNish, assistant dean of the Career Development Center at Darden, who hears from recruiters that the ability to effectively communicate and collaborate well on teams is essential.
“Also, MBA students [need] skills in data manipulation and analysis,” he says. “Students also must demonstrate facility in creative problem-solving, and have a strong executive presence.”
Marcel Kalis, head of career services for degree programs at ESMT Berlin, agrees. “There is a high demand for technical roles, business development, and roles in sales and consulting,” he says.
“Employers are looking for an understanding of digital impact, for entrepreneurial, communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills, as well as for employees who are resilient and team players.”
Clearly, post-MBA job opportunities are buoyant, but students will need to work hard to succeed in a job search.