What are the Career Prospects for the MBA Class of 2021?

The reduced availability of internships that seed full-time roles is a concern, while overseas students are having a tougher time securing work in America amid an immigration crackdown

When Covid-19 struck in March, MBA students in the “Corona Class” of 2020 who were graduating from business schools faced a gloomy job market as they bore the brunt of the worst recession in several generations.

Now, attention is turning to the career prospects of the Class of 2021. There are concerns that current second-year MBA students could suffer because of the reduced availability of internships over the past summer when companies shifted to remote working and the outlook was very uncertain.

In the US, where most full-time MBA programs are two years long, the summer internship is a well-trodden path to a full-time job at many banks, consulting firms and consumer goods companies. “Most students in the Class of 2021 have been affected in some way,” says Sheryle Dirks, associate dean for career management at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. “In some cases, summer 2020 internships were converted to remote work, shortened or outright cancelled.”

She adds: “We anticipate just-in-time recruiting, which occurs in late winter and spring, to be especially relevant this year.”

The anecdotal evidence is inconclusive, however. “We had little evidence of planned internships not going ahead, and students were not expressing any particular concerns,” says Tony Somers, director of employer engagement at HEC Paris.

“The Class of 2020 was the worst hit, by the brunt of the first wave of Covid-19, with some delays in start dates, an occasional cancellation of offers, and a general drying-up of business in the spring and summer.”

Furthermore, Sarah Rumbaugh, CEO of Relish, a job platform for MBAs, says she has observed a potential reduction in the importance of internships in seeding full-time roles. With coronavirus disruption to summer schemes, “we are seeing a larger volume of full-time roles available for the Class of 2021 than they might otherwise have seen”. Indeed, her company’s virtual career fair in September included 411 jobs, 311 of which were full-time roles and just were 100 internships.

Visa woes

Rumbaugh has been finding that overseas students are having a tougher time securing work in America than domestic candidates because of an immigration crackdown. “Our data show that the number of employers sponsoring H-1B visas has been declining year over year, and the suspension of the H-1B visa program has reduced this further,” says Rumbaugh, of the visa scheme for highly skilled migrants that was postponed in June.

“But the rise of STEM-designated MBA programs, which offer overseas students the ability to work without a H-1B visa in the US for up to three years post-graduation, is offering additional job opportunities for overseas students,” she adds.

At Duke Fuqua, Dirks says she has not seen a significant decrease in offers, but adds: “With increased scrutiny and uncertainty around the visa process, it’s natural that international students are finding the US job search complex right now.”

With the coronavirus pandemic pausing some on-campus recruitment, the current crop of MBA students is often limited to virtual activities. HEC Paris is working hard to ensure its students understand the dynamics of this virtual world of recruitment, holding workshops and training sessions, for instance.

“Despite being a generation that has grown up completely familiar and comfortable with social media, many students are surprisingly passive and reticent when interacting with employers and alumni online,” says Somers. “This is a shame, as often technology offers a better interaction with an employer than would be the case at a crowded in-person event.”

Dirks at Duke Fuqua, says it’s doubly important for students to leverage their networks, especially their school’s student and alumni community. “Even when using traditional channels such as campus interviews or online job boards, having someone inside the company to champion your candidacy can make a big difference,” she says.

Duke Fuqua is holding virtual “drop-in” coaching sessions to give students real-time assistance in succeeding in virtual recruiting and outreach to prospective employers and alumni to curate job opportunities.

Elsewhere, ESMT Berlin, like many business schools, has been holding virtual careers fairs to connect students with corporate recruiters. The German school has also invested in an artificial intelligence tool to help students pull off the perfect video pitch, given the prevalence of virtual job interviews. “The AI identifies areas to improve, like posture, lighting, presentation,” says Marcel Kalis, ESMT’s head of career services for degree programs. 

NUS Business School in Singapore is also deploying AI to help students land jobs in the Covid-era, including a tool that helps with resume writing. It works by comparing CVs and awarding scores for perceived effectiveness, as well as making recommendations for improvements, such as grammatical corrections. “AI-powered platforms allow a more flexible way of students training and polishing their skills,” says NUS’ head of careers, Enna Tan.

Finding a job in 2021 may require adaptation

Looking ahead to the 2021 recruitment season, Doreen Amorosa, associate dean for career services at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, is optimistic. “Engagement by our MBA employers has remained strong,” she says. “We are hosting all events virtually at the request of companies. This has allowed us to engage a broader range of employers than we could on campus.”

ESMT’s Kalis says it is too early to tell, but “we have already noticed demand from the consulting, technology, finance and ecommerce industries”.

He has noticed a change in required skills too. “Adaptation, resilience, empathy, communication, creativity, problem-solving skills, and motivating people and teams are more required the ever,” he says. This is reflected in GMAC’s recent employer survey. In the annual poll, employers listed the top three most desirable attributes for MBA hires as strategic thinking, communication skills and versatility.

HEC’s Somers says it’s clear that tech skills are becoming ever more important as well. “This does not equate with knowing programming well, but being comfortable with technology and understanding how to interpret and use data is more crucial than ever.”

What can students do to increase their chances of being hired? Experts say self-care is more important than ever. “Don’t let the process get you down,” says Duke Fuqua’s Dirks. “It’s easy to feel isolated while hunting for a job from home all day. Keep the people and routines in your life that help you feel centered and optimistic.”

Relish’s Rumbaugh wholeheartedly agrees. “While it’s important to consistently allocate time to recruiting, it’s important to find balance and not overdo it. At the end of the day, there are aspects of the process that are outside of your control, and that’s particularly true in a pandemic.”

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