With financial services jobs in short supply, newly minted MBAs are exploring other options

By Dave Copeland
Globe Correspondent / September 13, 2009

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As his graduation from Babson College’s MBA program drew near last year, Josh Bob began interviewing for a handful of jobs on Wall Street. But because those positions have dried up in the tough economy, he changed courses.

Bob wound up keeping his job as the northeast regional manager for the World Adult Kickball Association, but is using his new MBA to start a business, Textaurant Corp., which aims to help restaurants manage waiting lists and notify customers when tables are ready by sending text messages to their cellphones.

“I was seeing 40 candidates lined up for every opening,’’ said Bob, 30, of Waltham, who had long wanted to be an entrepreneur. “I made a conscious decision that I did not want to be a part of that backup.’’

It used to be that a master of business administration could almost guarantee a gig on Wall Street, but not anymore. A national unemployment rate that hit 9.7 percent last month has left six job seekers for every one job. Adding to that, the financial services sector, a mainstay for MBA grads, cut tens of thousands of jobs following the financial crisis and continues to shed hundreds of jobs each month.

That has left some MBA graduates wondering how to adapt their career plans to the new market realities so they can use their coveted degrees.

Some may consider corporate jobs in industries that are more stable, such as health care or consulting. Others may take a chance on emerging fields such as clean energy. And some, like Bob, will decide to start a business.

Whatever they decide, Karen McRoberts, the senior corporate recruiter at Boston University’s School of Management, said students who are persistent and can reconfigure their job hunt are reporting success. She said the students who have been most successful in finding jobs are the ones who tap into what she calls “the hidden job market,’’ or who apply for jobs at companies that “may have two or three opportunities, or even just one opportunity, as opposed to 100 opportunities.’’

“We’ve certainly felt the repercussions of the past year,’’ said McRoberts, who’s seen a decline in the number of opportunities from firms coming on campus to recruit business school students.

“But those students who treat the job hunt as if it’s an additional class will be successful. I think there’s a realization that you have a plan A, but now might not be the time to go after that plan A, so it’s good to have backup plans.’’

To be sure, MBA degrees do give people an edge in job hunting. As the recession has forced firms to slow hiring, people with MBAs have increasingly found themselves fielding a higher percentage of job offers. Indeed, according to a Kaplan Test Prep survey of corporate recruiters, firms expect 13 percent of their new hires to have MBA degrees this year, up from 10 percent in 2008.

And many students still see the value in getting an MBA. Business schools awarded 146,406 MBA degrees in 2006, according to US Department of Education statistics, up from 111,532 in 2000 and 78,255 in 1990.

“Getting the advanced degree is still a good thing,’’ said Janette Marx, senior vice president of Ajilon Finance, a staffing firm based in Melville, N.Y. “It’s a stronger differentiator, and it shows employers that the candidate is fully committed to the field they’re working in.’’

But since some financial services firms may have scaled back their hiring, Marx said firms in the engineering, health care, and IT sectors are all looking to add MBAs to their roster. “All of these types of companies are looking for candidates with smart, analytical minds,’’ she said.

Still, Marx said that securing employment is tough and that recent, out-of-work MBA graduates should consider high-level contract work to get a feel for different industries until they secure a full-time offer. She also noted that people with the degrees who switch industries may have to accept a pay cut. “Sometimes you have to take a step backwards to take those two steps forward,’’ she said.

Potential enrollees in MBA programs now are spending more time considering the return on investment for the degree, said Andrew Mitchell, director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions.

And the recession has only increased that scrutiny: According to a Kaplan survey of 260 business schools, 43 percent reported that they were fielding more questions from applicants as they considered their programs.

Mitchell said Kaplan is seeing a shift in the attitudes of students who are taking test-prep courses for graduate school entrance exams, with many looking into working in the nonprofit sector. “It’s a versatile degree - it’s one of the most versatile degrees out there, so graduates aren’t necessarily bound to jobs in the financial services sector.’’

Business schools awarded 146,406 MBA degrees in 2006,

up from 111,532 in 2000 and 78,255 in 1990.

SOURCE: Department of Education