Jump-Starting the Job Search

When recruiters won’t settle for “second-best,” how do career development offices deliver candidates who are prepped, poised, and practically perfect? They market aggressively, promote persistently, and argue persuasively for students to get a jump on the job hunt—sometimes before classes even begin.
Jump-Starting the Job Search

The job-hunting woes of business graduates—and those of the career development staff who advise them—have loomed large in a tight job market. Most career services professionals agree that the heyday of multiple job offers and signing bonuses are over; gone are the days when the role of a career services office (CSO) was mostly to match students to the job openings already pouring in. Today, an impressive resume is no longer a guarantee of employment; and what worked for business graduates five years ago may not work for the Class of ’05.

“Before, the main job of a career services professional was to counsel a student on which offer to accept,” says Pedro Gonzalez, director of MBA Career Services at Drexel University’s LeBow College of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. “Now, it’s to help them discover an interest, find a company, prepare for an interview, and even get that first job offer.” As a result, the length of the counseling relationship has been dramatically extended. A career advisor once may have had only a few interactions with students, most during the last few months before graduation. Today, the career counseling relationship is ongoing, lasting from the time students’ applications are accepted to long after they graduate.

Even now, as the job market emerges from its stubborn deep freeze, career services professionals have found that while employers are regaining their optimism, they are maintaining caution when it comes to hiring. Companies don’t want to train “fixer-upper” applicants or waste time interviewing candidates who aren’t their dream hires.

“There was a time when companies were more willing to train people,” says Jessica Rubingh, career management center director for the Rotterdam School of Management at Erasmus University in The Netherlands. As a former recruiter for Deloitte & Touche, she knows what students are up against. “These days, recruiters are more selective and specific in what they’re looking for. In recruiter-speak, we talk about ‘the sheep with five legs.’ That’s what recruiters demand now—the ideal candidate who meets their criteria perfectly.”

This new attitude among employers poses a challenge even to the most creative career services professionals. Still, many who work in career services say that today’s competitive market has energized the profession, transforming it from what was once almost an afterthought for business students into an integrated part of their curriculum. As a result, they say, students are developing the skills not only to find their first jobs after graduation, but to advance their professional development for the rest of their lifetimes.

“Their goal is to maintain relationships with companies and to keep INSEAD’s brand out there. We want them to think of INSEAD first when they have recruiting needs.” –Claire Lecoq, INSEAD

Corporate Relations

Not surprisingly, corporations aren’t just being selective with the job candidates they’ll consider; they’re also cutting back on the number of campuses their recruiters visit. No longer willing to stretch resources to screen students at 50 different campuses, employers prefer instead to focus their recruiting efforts on only a handful of schools they know will provide them with quality hires. That leaves CSOs vying for fewer slots on recruiters’ calendars and their students vying for fewer openings.

For many CSOs, the solution has been to focus less on job placement and more on corporate relationships, with many offices going on the all-out offensive. The word among career services professionals is “outreach,” and the goal is “building relationships,” says Jay Irvine, business undergraduate placement coordinator at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Only by actively maintaining current corporate relationships and developing new ones can a business school hope to garner a top spot on a recruiter’s itinerary.

As a result, many career services offices—even those with very few staff—are dedicating at least one or two staff members solely to corporate relations. Their job is to stay in contact with recruiters, update job and contact information, and discover just what qualities companies are looking for in students this year. Many career services professionals are increasing their travel time and visiting companies throughout the year to stay in contact, learn their needs, and keep the school’s name and students on their priority list.

The MBA Career Services department for INSEAD’s campuses in Fontainebleau, France, and Singapore has hired new staff, many of whom are dedicated solely to corporate relations, explains Claire Lecoq, its director. “Their goal is to maintain relationships with companies and to keep INSEAD’s brand out there,” she says. “We want them to think of INSEAD first when they have recruiting needs.”

Corporate outreach is a special challenge to schools in regions of the world where companies have never made on-campus visits a priority, explains Maribel Arce, director of the CSO at INCAE in Costa Rica. “Under current Latin standards, local companies do not regularly recruit on campuses, nor do they plan executive development with sufficient anticipation. Traditionally, companies only recruit when a vacancy opens,” says Arce.

With her office’s efforts, however, that tide may be turning. When INCAE held its first on-campus job fair four years ago, only ten companies participated. This year’s fair drew 73 companies, says Arce, an improvement that denotes a possible change in mindset among Latin American employers.

The MBA Career Services office at LeBow College also is taking its corporate outreach one step further, says Gonzalez. The office is creating an employer advisory board that not only will help it better advise students, but also will keep the school in close contact with company representatives in a position to hire. The board isn’t meant to put pressure on any company to recruit on campus, explains Gonzalez. Rather, it’s an invitation for a company to share insight that will make LeBow graduates even stronger applicants.

“We tell companies that we understand that they represent an industry of our region and that we value them as experts in an area that typically hires MBAs. We ask them to provide us with advice on what we can do better as an MBA career services office,” says Gonzalez. Of course, Gonzalez admits that board members are also resources for more direct job-related information. “There is obviously an implied message to members of the board,” he adds. “Members know they’ll be relied on to help our students network, to bring in speakers, and to promote the name of our college.”

Early Decision

To students, the phrase “early decision” once referred to applying to colleges before their regular admissions deadlines as a way to get a jump on the admissions process. Today, however, that phrase also refers to their job searches. The earlier students decide what careers they want to pursue, the earlier they can get experience in their chosen fields. And the more experience they have when they graduate, the more competitive they’ll be when it’s time to land a full-time position.

At Temple University’s Fox School of Business and Management in Philadelphia, career development starts before students begin their courses, explains Debbie Avery, assistant dean. “Before students arrive, we send each of them a brochure on what career development is, how our office works, and how career development is integrated into the curriculum,” says Avery. “We give them a four-year plan, so they’ll know what to do once they start their classes.”

With an earlier timetable at work, students also often need help pinpointing their own interests much earlier than ever before. Irvine of Brigham Young University notes that many career services professionals have moved to an “early career planning concept” to get students prepared for the job hunt as soon as possible.

“Students need to learn about the job market sooner. And not only do they need to know they’re interested in business, they need to further specify that they’re interested in banking. Then, they not only must know that they’re interested in banking, but they also must be prepared to speak intelligently about what they want to do in banking,” Irvine says. “Employers want students to be very specific. It’s our role as placement professionals to make this happen.”

As if this weren’t pressure enough for students, more employers are now also relying on internships more extensively as a pre-screening process for full-time positions. To find the right position after graduation, students may have to work in not just one, but multiple internships, so that they can be seen by more than one company. Moreover, companies are expecting applicants for those internships—who are often undergraduates in their sophomore or junior years—to have job-related experience.

“We have some investment banking firms come in and want to hire our juniors and seniors as interns, but they’re looking for students who’ve already done internships on Wall Street as sophomores! There is more pressure on students to qualify themselves for these positions,” says Irvine.

“We have some investment banking firms come in and want to hire our juniors and seniors as interns, but they’re looking for students who’ve already done internships on Wall Street as sophomores!” – Jay Irvine, Brigham Young University

At some point, however, there’s a limit to just how early companies should have access to students, says Lecoq of INSEAD. Her office has been under increased pressure from recruiters to allow them access to students before their MBA programs have even started. But such early recruiting, she notes, isn’t good for the student, the school, or the company. “It’s a challenge to manage their expectations,” says Lecoq, “but we think it’s better that students talk to recruiters after we have been able to train them appropriately, so students will present themselves at their best.”

Skills for Life

With so much emphasis on jumping into career development early, activities such as dedicated career planning courses, student projects for professional development, and timelines for achievement are now mainstays of career programs. Once optional for students—especially undergraduates—these activities are now often mandatory. Business schools want to ensure their students will be prepared for the working world upon graduation and will represent their schools well to employers.

Students at Rotterdam, for example, are required to prepare a draft of their curriculum vitae before their program starts. Rotterdam’s career services office sends a message to students starting in October, which gives them access to its new online CV platform and asks them to have a draft ready before classes begin. Once students arrive on campus, they attend a workshop on CV revision.

“Many students overlook the fact that a profession is related to an industry. Students tell me, ‘I want to work in marketing.’ I ask them, ‘In what industry?’ And their faces go blank.” – Pedro Gonzalez, Drexel University

The goal, says Rubingh, “is to have them focus on the future, rather than the past. Students shouldn’t think about what they’ve done, but about what they want to do and how their past experience prepares them for what they want to do. They need to think about what recruiters will be looking for and what kind of key words they’ll be using in their searches.”

Under the aegis of career services, students in the one-year MBA program at LeBow, for example, are required to complete an industry-related project, explains Gonzalez. Student teams explore the trends affecting an industry— pharmaceuticals or insurance—and examine what business models have been successful for that industry and what kind of talent that industry has rewarded over time. Then, in a mock business scenario that has a CEO asking for their advice, students make a presentation.

“Many students overlook the fact that a profession is related to an industry. Students tell me, ‘I want to work in marketing.’ I ask them, ‘In what industry?’ And their faces go blank,” says Gonzalez. “I’m a stickler for students’ knowing the industry space they want to work in. This project shows them that they have to research the industry they want to enter.”

Like a growing number of business schools, the Fox School requires students to complete a professional development course that covers everything from resume writing and interviewing to personal ethics issues, such as how to negotiate job offers and what to do if they’ve accepted one offer and a better one comes along. When they start the program, they may not fully appreciate the experience, but once they begin forays into internship interviews, says Avery, they begin to value the skills they’ve gained.

“It’s very interesting to hear students’ comments when they return from a mass interview at a company like GE,” says Avery at the Fox School. “They’ll say, ‘You won’t believe what this person was wearing,’ or ‘One girl wore black nail polish,’ or ‘No one knew anything about the company.’ There’s a buzz among our students now, so that we know they appreciate the added advantage these skills give them, even in a good job market.”

More Information, Immediate Gratification

Now that technology is becoming more sophisticated and global job searches are more common, it’s not surprising that many schools report an increased expectation among companies to use the Internet to a much greater extent. And with many companies scaling back on their travel budgets, they want to be able to read student resumes online, attend virtual job fairs, conduct keyword searches of resumes, and batch student resumes by chosen criteria.

“When I was a recruiter, my team asked me so many questions such as, ‘What are the recruiting days at this school?’ or ‘How can we receive CVs from this type of student?’ or ‘Why are we participating in this school’s event?’ It was wonderful if a school had a Web site where I could just tell them to go for information,” says Rubingh.

Online recruitment is also a growing trend that has many companies preferring to receive resumes either through their corporate recruitment Web sites or via the sites of their target schools. Rotterdam School of Management, for instance, uses MBA-Exchange.com. The site allows students from subscribing schools to network, perfect and post resumes, take advantage of career advice, and peruse job listings. It helps recruiters to locate quickly the resumes of students most suited to the positions they wish to fill.

Other schools are also taking greater advantage of technology and the flexibility inherent in digital recruiting options. INSEAD’s MBA CSO, for example, recently revamped its Internet portal to provide more comprehensive information and better communication with students. INCAE recently replaced its printed resume book with a CD-ROM, added an online recruiting system, and increased the participation of alumni in its programs through an electronic newsletter.

Whether schools, students, and recruiters are using corporate Web sites, school Web sites, virtual job fairs, or collaborative sites such as MBA-Exchange.com, the trend for career services is clear—quicker, earlier, better. The more students and employers have access to comprehensive, updated information, the more proactive their approach will be to professional development and hiring, say career services professionals.

Many CSOs see their role in business education continuing to expand in coming years. Their biggest challenges? Providing comprehensive information, managing mounting expectations, and balancing employers’ short-term expectations with students’ long-term prospects. With so much at stake, the professional development program promises to become one of the most popular aspects of the b-school curriculum—and today’s new and improved CSOs are ready to deliver.