Signs Of Hope As MBAs Adapt And Network In A Tough Job Market

Christel Deskins

MBA students are using valuable alumni networks and adapting their job search to sectors that are … [+] showing signs of strength. getty When nothing is certain, everything is possible. MBAs are no doubt familiar with the managerial acronym VUCA, short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, described in the […]

When nothing is certain, everything is possible. MBAs are no doubt familiar with the managerial acronym VUCA, short for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity, described in the Harvard Business Review as a catchall for ‘Hey, it’s crazy out there!’ But they had no way of predicting the job market they would encounter this summer.

As jobless claims in the U.S. climbed above 1 million last week in the face of the coronavirus, many members of the MBA Class of 2020 who started their business school studies in a booming economy were now facing one of the toughest job markets in decades, with fewer job offers, or start dates that are being pushed back by months or even a year.

How do things compare in Europe? Despite a return in retail sales to pre-pandemic levels across the bloc after the initial easing of lockdown restrictions, Covid-19 has battered the Eurozone economy, plunging it into recession. But data from one of the world’s largest network of job boards, Broadbean Technology, shows sign of promise in a number of sectors. According to Broadbean, in the Netherlands vacancies advertised at the end of May were up 41% in the pharma sector compared to 12 months ago, and 65% in financial services. In France, vacancies increased in IT by 13% at the end of May compared to the previous month and increased by 11% in pharma by the start of June. And, in Germany, the number of jobs advertised in financial services increased by 26% by mid-June, and by 52 % in the pharma industry.

After speaking with business schools in the UK for my previous article on the MBA job market, the impact of Covid-19 does not appear to be as gloomy as I first thought. I’ve been hosting MBA careers panels with the Poets & Quants Editor-in-Chief, John Byrne, and speaking with career advisors from business schools in Belgium, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and Switzerland to understand how the European MBA job market looks for this year’s graduates.

Despite the uncertainty we are all experiencing, and a flow of news about job cuts, furloughed staff and increasing financial pressure in the hardest hit industries, their feedback has been reassuring. Much depends on applying the lessons learned about VUCA, and adapting a job search to the sectors that are showing signs of strength.

Yolanda Habets, Head of MBA programmes at Vlerick Business School in Belgium, believes that the job market outlook might not be as grim as graduates are expecting. “There are definitely a number of sectors that will come out of the current crisis ahead of the game and will need additional business graduates to support their growth,” she says. “These industries include healthcare and pharma, telecommunications and e-commerce.” She also believes that the banking industry will accelerate a move to online which will create opportunities in Fintech, and that demand for consulting, a traditional and popular career choice for MBA graduates, will remain, “especially those with a focus on digital transformation and business model innovation.”

Her assessment of the current jobs market may well be right. In retail alone, numerous global brands have cited digital transformation as a trend that will endure long after the coronavirus pandemic. The French cosmetics giant L’Oreal, for example, made its thoughts clear in June, highlighting that through e-commerce it had made in eight weeks what would otherwise have taken three years to achieve.

This optimistic view is also seen at other European schools, including IMD Business School in Switzerland. “Businesses across all sectors have said they will continue to recruit as planned, it is just the question of how,” says Julia De Vargas-Marguez, MBA Career Development Director. Speaking on a CentreCourt MBA Careers Panel, she says that this is especially the case in the tech sector. “I have spoken to people in this industry who have said they are now planning to recruit more people than initially planned for this year,” she says.

Despite the challenges that students will face, Vargas-Marquez remains confident that business will move on. “Times in the post-COVID world are uncertain, but thankfully, we’ve learnt from the past, we can’t stop recruiting. Businesses across all sectors have said that they will continue to recruit as planned, it’s just the question of how.”

IMD has been preparing its students for the digital environment they will face in the professional world, working to ensure that their virtual interview techniques are top notch. “The first round of interviews is likely to be virtual,” says Vargas-Marquez, “and we can help our students plan and alter the interviewing techniques accordingly – if they are able to master the virtual interview, they’ll probably ace the face-to-face,”

Ultimately Vargas-Marquez’ has found reassurance in the response of the IMD alumni community, many of whom have first-hand experience finding jobs during an economic crisis. “We have had alumni from ten years ago, especially the 2008/2009 class, proactively reaching out to us asking ‘how can we help?’”

The alumni network at one of Germany’s leading business schools, ESMT Berlin, has similarly stepped up with support as Marcel Kalis, Head of Career Services explains. “I recently had a Zoom call with an ESMT alumnus, and he wanted to share internship opportunities, plus a potential project for MBAs with a big chance of securing permanent employment based on successful performance.”

For Kalis such examples show why it is more important than ever to have a healthy corporate and alumni network. “It is amazing to see how students and alumni are helping each other in this challenging environment.” The alumnus had also informed him that his company had recently on-boarded four new employees.

What industry did the alumnus work in? Technology, of course.

“This coincides with a recent survey by the Career Services & Employer Alliance which shared updates about the impact of Covid—19 on career services and recruiting in Europe,” says Kalis. “More than 90% of the schools have seen hiring freezes, but still see hiring activities in the sectors technology, healthcare, and financial services. More affected, but still active, are logistical services and transportation sectors, followed by consulting and consumer goods.”

So are digital skills now key to success in the European MBA jobs market post-COVID? For Tommaso Agasisti, Associate Dean at MIP Politecnico di Milano in Italy there is little doubt that digital transformation across all sectors will be accelerated. “Businesses will need graduates who are innovators, and capable of managing big digital projects and operations,” he says.

But for Agasisti, success in the post-Covid MBA jobs market will also require a wider set of skills. “It is worth noting that out of this pandemic, human relationships will change, personally and professionally. Considering this, ‘hard skills’ will no longer be the only essential qualities MBA graduates will need. They will also need to be experts in managing change more than ever after this pandemic, and will need ‘soft skills’ such as empathy, resilience, and knowing how to motivate teams. Ultimately, MBAs who excel in communication, and are able to be dynamic, will most certainly do well in all industries in the future.”

Tommaso Agastiti isn’t alone in his view on the importance of ‘soft skills’. In 2016, Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report found that 92 percent of respondents valued soft skills as a ‘critical priority’. Employers are increasingly placing a higher value on personal attributes such as communication skills and strategic vision that are such an integral part of what an MBA offers. And, in a world where more work will be done remotely, an ability to lead from afar or demonstrate resilience in the face of challenge must surely be considered a key attribute.

Vasileios Zaravellas from Rotterdam School of Management Erasmus University (RSM), certainly thinks so. He says that it is such skills that distinguish MBA graduates from other job applicants. “As an MBA graduate you have stronger tools to fight this fight, the MBA will equip you with the hard skills but also the soft skills needed to be a better leader, especially in times like this where strong leadership is needed. In fact, this is one of the best-case situations that an MBA student or graduate can use their skills to come up with solutions, come up with plans around how to help a business to survive and to grow.”

Despite the economic uncertainty, RSM’s Assistant Director for MBA Admissions insists that for those with the right skills and who have resilience, there are employment opportunities out there in sectors that look to still be growing, including healthcare, digital media and technology. But, according Zaravellas, the overriding message for MBA students and graduates is to network. “Networking is very important, try to imagine finding a job via video, or networking online. Resilience and positivity is key to being successful as the next few months or years ahead might not be easy.”

Looking further north, BI Norwegian Business School’s President, Inge Jan Henjesand, says that while it would be difficult to accurately pinpoint which sectors will fare better than others, the important issue is how the pandemic has impacted the need for new skills. Henjesand shares the view that a combination of hard and soft skills will be needed to succeed in the post-COVID world.

“I think there will be more need for candidates with strategic and operational expertise in digitization, new business models, operational expertise in developing new products, marketing and operating digital products and services. He says that, “the explosion in use of digital technology in communication” has meant that it will be very important for students to use their skills, developed in their MBA to, “utilize and deal with the digital communication boom.”

According to Henjesand, taking into account the new skills and understanding needed to succeed in virtually all industries, one thing is for certain – it helps to go to business school. “Being a student at a business school these days adds relevant and valuable context to a unique learning experience.”

For France’s emlyon business school, ensuring that students have the skills needed for the kind of environment we now find ourselves in has long been on the agenda. Marie-Laure Lombard, Head of Career Services explains that during the last few years business schools have been preparing their students for the ‘big shift’ in 2030. “We have been telling our students for quite some time that 85% of the jobs in 2030 don’t exist yet.”

As a consequence the business school has been working to guarantee that all its students graduate with both the soft and hard skills needed to be successful in even most the uncertain of MBA jobs markets. “At emlyon, skills such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability and emotional intelligence are present all along the academic and careers tracks of our programmes through action learning and individual and collective coaching,” Lombard says.

She tells me that during the pandemic, the school has tested its MBA students’ ability to adapt to the environment that they could find themselves in as professionals. “We have tested the collaboration and creativity of our students by shifting all of our courses online while maintaining the same academic quality in their outputs. We have fostered their adaptability by giving them a greater flexibility for their internships, and encouraged their creativity when imagining their professional project after graduation so that they can seize opportunities in sectors that are hiring such as health, e-commerce, logistics and the environment.”

Citing factors such as the skills acquired and honed on the MBA programmes, as well as the alumni network available to students upon graduating, the careers services executives from some of the US and Europe’s top business schools remained steadfast in their conviction that while COVID-19 has brought with it many challenges, the resilience of the MBA job market will endure.

Despite these uncertain times, perhaps MBA graduates shouldn’t think just about getting a job but getting a job that is right for them. Mike Mascarenhas, Associate Director at IESE Business School in Spain says that when job searching, graduates should look at the happiness factor. “It is important to ensure that graduates don’t take a job just because it is there, they need to make sure it is the right fit for them,” he says.

“I looked into graduate jobs and happiness and found a correlation between how thoughtful the approach that person took to find that job and their happiness – there are a lot of people who go into consulting because it is the first that comes but it may not be a perfect fit. Knowing yourself is vital in making important decisions rather than taking the easy choice.”

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