Put simply, the 2003 job market is not for the faint of heart. In recent months, HBS students have joined the masses across the country searching for employment, with many finding success through on-campus recruiting, and many others depending on their personal network search to land the perfect job. While today’s market is arguably even more difficult than last year’s, there are some signs of hope.
71.2% of ECs have at least one job offer as of February 28, 2003, which the Career Office believes to be slightly better than last year. However, 46.1% of ECs have accepted a permanent job as of early February, which is slightly lower than last year’s 50%, reminding us that this is not a predictable nor an easy process. With each student tackling and managing through their own job search, the Harbus sat down with Matt Merrick, Director of HBS Career Services, to get a more complete understanding of how HBS students as an aggregate are fairing today in the job market, in comparison to years past, and to other top business schools across the nation.
Harbus: What are the key differences between what the HBS career office was doing last year to help students find jobs and what you are doing this year?
MM: The biggest difference is that our marketing efforts are more mature. A year ago at this time we were just beginning to do marketing and reaching out to companies, and at this point we have been doing it for a while. We still have more to do, but our efforts today are more mature – and we are starting to see more of the fruits of our labor than we were a year ago.
Harbus: Specifically, can you describe for us some of these new marketing programs?
MM: The biggest initiative we have is this Key Account program. We have developed a core list of a hundred to a hundred and fifty companies that we know, based on surveying students, on our own knowledge of students, and our on our knowledge of those companies that in the long-run can support the hiring of MBAs. We then proactively reach out to the companies on this list and often travel to meet them in their cities. Having a target list and focusing on relationships on those target list, although it may sound simple, can have a huge impact.
Harbus: And we understand that wasn’t done in years past?
MM: No, it wasn’t. That’s why we did it. This started about a year and a half ago. Kim (Dean Clark) has also recently sent out a letter to hundred and sixty key alumni asking them for their assistance and I have already received responses from four to five of them.
Another big difference between this year and last year is that HBS has invested a significant amount of money in our technology platform. Although we still have a lot of work to do, we have the first round of developing a stable and efficient, productive technology platform with the Job Bank.
Harbus: What are the most recent numbers of the Class of 2002 faired last year? What percentage of the Class of 2002 is still unemployed today?
MM: From the class of ’02, if you eliminate some people who have been laid off, it’s a very, very small number that are still looking – a low single, digit percentage. I haven’t heard recently from any students from the class of ’02 who are still looking, but I am sure that some still are. Did I hear from some in the fall? Of course, but I haven’t heard from any recently.
Harbus: How do you see HBS ranking in comparison to other business’ schools with regard to job placement for last year and in terms of new activities and initiatives for this year?
MM: I don’t know of any other school that is doing more from a dollar investment perspective or activity perspective. Kim approved the allocation of substantial funds to support the student’s job search efforts. No one is more aggressive than we are with marketing efforts to leverage our brand name and reach out to companies.
With the introduction of Career Coaching, this is a huge new program that has come along. With regard to technology investment, we invested a lot of money to create a platform so that students don’t have to worry about the technology. With our new platform, students can focus on the normal worrying that accompanies a job search instead of being concerned as to whether the technology works or not. That is a big difference in job search experience between the classes of 2003 and 2004, as the second-years remain on the old system – Career Link – while the first-years operate entirely on the new system – Job Bank – from the beginning. While the second years didn’t trust the old system, our impression is that this year’s first year class does trust our new platform.
As far as comparing to other business schools, we had the second highest placement rate and second highest compensation rate of any business school in the country, based on Business Week’s 2002 survey and there also wasn’t a big difference between the #1 and #2 schools.
Plus, I also have relationships with all of those schools and we communicate regularly with all of those schools.
Harbus: How much do the career offices of the top business schools communicate and have you been able to garner any new ideas and learn from each other?
MM: There is a really strong informal communication system across the top business schools. I know the career services directors from Stanford and Kellogg and MIT very well and we are constantly sharing new ideas. One small example of an initiative that came directly out of our conversations with other businesses schools is that we now film practice interviews for international students so that they can see themselves in an interview and improve their performance in their actual interviews.
Harbus: Do you have a sense of how the class of 2003 will fare? Do you expect it to be similar to last year? Better? Worse?
MM: I think that the general job market this year compared to last year looks to be about the same. Here’s two small pieces of optimism however – students are making better decisions than they did a year ago. They are not pursuing jobs that are not going to happen. They are not pursuing opportunities that their background is not relevant for. I think they are making more realistic, more prudent, better decisions, strategically and tactically in their job search. They are not pursuing opportunities for which their background is not relevant and are thus making more prudent, better decisions, strategically and tactically in their job search. Secondly, I also believe that our outreach efforts at the Career Center in the long run are going to work. In the short run our efforts are not going to help lots of people but in the long run we believe our efforts will make a significant impact for our students.
Harbus: How many companies do you expect will be recruiting at HBS this year, particularly in comparison to five, ten years ago? Do you expect a large number of the jobs to continue to come in over the spring months?
MM: Last year we had about twelve hundred listings in the job bank total for first and second year students. Keep in mind however that one company might put only one listing, but they might hire a group of people for that one listing. We are expecting about the same total number of listings this year, and that the number of jobs that are posted to the Job Bank and Career Link between now and summer time will double from where they are today during that time frame.
One of my big concerns, especially for the second year class, is that they have given up on Career Link and are not looking at the new jobs that are posted, and are consequently missing excellent opportunities. This happened last year, and I know it’s happening again this year and it’s of great concern to us. There are some great jobs coming to the table – some coming from the marketing efforts of the career office and others coming from other means – however students are not paying attention to them and they believe their job search is up
to them on their own.
Harbus: When the career office approached new companies to consider recruiting at HBS what types of reactions do you typically receive?
MM: Very, very positive. They are very excited to hear that students would be potentially interested in their company. They are sometimes surprised to hear that our students are having to work hard and the school is having to work hard to help students find jobs. In many cases there are also a substantial number of perceptions that we have to address such as, ” I thought all of your students want to be consultants – why would they care about marketing and media?” or “I thought your students got paid x amount of money and I don’t know if we could match their expected salary level.” And then we need to correct those perceptions. In many cases, the companies want to know what they need to do to start making the process work.
Harbus: How satisfied are you with Job Bank in particular in comparison with Career Link?
MM: I am very satisfied. This past two months has been a huge test for the Job Bank to be able to test the processes and load we have. It hasn’t been perfect, but we have been very pleased. Especially compared to Career Link, which was a disaster.
Harbus: Can you tell us about the effort that was initiated to launch the Job Bank?
MM: In short, the new technology platform has been a very, very large effort and it’s a continual effort. The most important thing to us was to get a base level of functionality out there that works and that’s where we are today. Another very important thing is the students need to be able to trust that the system is accurate, is giving them the right information, and that it is not making mistakes. The trust first years have in the Job Bank compared to the second years’ faith in Career Link is like night and day. The second years have no faith in Career Link. For the first years the system works and they move on, which is exactly what we want.
All of this trouble with Career Link does not allow us to focus on the ultimate issue, which is that this is a difficult job market and students need all the help they can get to get a job. Career Link became more of a distraction than anything else. Any minute I spend talking about Career Link is a minute that I can not spend marketing for students.
Now having a stable technology platform means that I and the entire career office can focus more of our time building relationships with students and building relationships with companies, which is what will make the difference.
Harbus: Can you describe some of the recent efforts initiated with alumni to increase job opportunities for students?
MM: In addition to Kim’s targeted letter to alumni, the Career Office has also sent out a specific communication to about fifteen to twenty alumni clubs around the world in some of the major cities to ask for their help in assisting students with the job market.
The majority of the companies in our Key Account Program have HBS alum in senior positions, which was by design. So baked into our key account program is the notion that we are leveraging alumni. That is a huge competitive advantage that we have because HBS has so many alumni in influential positions.
Harbus: In the past you announced that you were going to be reaching out for summer internship positions by targeting the portfolio companies of venture capital and private equity firms. Is that something that you are still pursuing?
MM: We did it and it didn’t work, so we stopped. It sounded good – we thought it was a good idea and we pursued it last spring with very little tangible results. We decided that we had better ideas to focus on and I think that’s o.k. We want to continue to pursue new ideas – whether they are generated by students, faculty or by ourselves. Not all of them are going to work. If we don’t have programs that fail every once in a while then we are not innovating enough and not trying enough new programs.
Harbus: We clearly have a lot of students, in addition pursuing the jobs in Career Link and the Job Bank, are also actively pursuing a network job search. In your experience, what would you say are some of the critical elements to making a network job search a success?
MM: First, is to have a good strategy and a proper amount of focus. If
you want to focus on a region or industry, then you should asses whether your focus in that industry is realistic. If you are a marketing person who used to work in high-tech and wants to switch industries, you should consider switching industries but remain in that marketing role. Perhaps you would rather be in finance in this new industry, but you may instead pursue marketing opportunities because it is a more realistic strategy.
Second, you need to view yourself as a product and you need to be able to sell your key points. You need to have your talking points ready and be ready to go.
Third, it takes hard work and a good attitude. You have to keep at it and you have to keep positive. And know it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. A small amount of people will get something really quick and maybe they were lucky – who knows? But for most people it will take two, three, four, or six months. It takes a long time and you have to stay very positive. The bigger jump you are taking, the longer it is going to take.
Harbus: What is your advice to students who may have received few or no interview requests through the Job Bank and are frustrated and frightened at this point?
MM: First of all, they should know that only about half of the students wind up getting a job through the formal, on-campus recruiting process. Second, the first thing someone should do – whether they come to us to seek counseling or not – is they need to go back and look at their strategy for getting a job. Do they have a strategy? If not, they need to get one. If coming to us is helpful – great – I would encourage everyone to come to us. But you have to go back and look at what your approach is and ask others for their input on whether or not it makes sense.
Last, don’t get too caught up in all the hype around dedicated recruiting.
A lot of people will be getting jobs in the next couple of weeks and don’t get caught up too much in what other people have and comparing yourself to them. Students are sometimes guilty of comparing themselves way too much to others. My advice to students in the last couple of months has been to go through the dedicated period and after that to re-asses where you are. You can come back and talk to me or someone else in this office, or figure it out on your own, but you need to re-asses, based on how much luck you had or did not have, and ask yourself, “Do I have a good strategy going forward?” If you have been surprised by what happened during the dedicated period, then you need to immediately re-asses your strategy and seek help in developing a new strategy.
Harbus: What is your advice for students on how they should respond to outsider’s reactions who, upon learning they are a student at HBS assume they have countless opportunities, when in this job market, that likely may not be the case?
MM: This must be handled in a case-by-case basis. A student should use it as a chance to talk about what their interests are and what they want to do. Then maybe even talk about what your progress has been, what you have learned, or what you think you opportunities might be. I think you need to personalize your answer to something like, “Well, I am really interested in getting into a marketing job and I am having a really tough time getting traction.” And then use it as a chance to tell your story and sell yourself. Maybe that person can help you or they can connect you to someone who can help you. It’s your sales opportunity.
I would also say this – compared to other parts of the economy, other business schools, our students still do have an advantage. It’s all relative. As hard
as it is, it is still a good place to be.
Harbus: What is your advice for international students? How likely are they to find opportunities in the U.S. or should they be spending the majority of their time looking abroad?
MM: For non-U.S. authorized students, to find jobs in the U.S. has become very difficult. Even this year compared to last year – it has become more difficult. Large US companies are a lot less likely to even want to interview non-U.S. students even compared to a year ago. If students have not spent any time looking back in their home region then they should spend at least some time. I don’t know what exactly the percentage should be, as it’s a case-by-case basis and it depends on the person. But if they haven’t done any, they should be conducting some of their job search in their home country as part of a prudent strategy. International students and helping them with their job opportunities has become one of our biggest issues.
Harbus: Have you had any major epiphanies as to how you might address this issue in the future?
MM: If you look at our Key Account list – well over 40% of our target list are non-U.S. companies. In addition, we are actually deliberately targeting the international divisions of U.S.-based companies. So maybe one of our students can’t get a job with XYZ company in the U.S., but maybe you can get a job with their European office. We have also extended our coaching capabilities so that we have more people available to counsel with international experience and knowledge.
We recognize this is our biggest issue. I want to be realistic with students – we still have a lot of work to do on this topic. If you look at the international issue – we have some good ideas on the table but we need to have more. We are still trying to come up with more good ideas, and we hope the students can help us to address this issue. There is more room for creativity and innovation here. If an international student has an idea on how we can improve our recruiting efforts, (s)he should contact me.
Harbus: How do you expect the job market to change in 2003? Or should we hold out for signs of improvement in 2004?
MM: I think that you hope for the best and you plan for the worst. Your job search strategy should be based on today’s current conditions and you should not expect for them to get better. It’s impossible to predict what the job market is going to be when you graduate. Under usual business cycles conditions, conditions would typically start to improve by the time you graduate. But I think you need to expect that it will be the same, and if it gets better, then that’s gravy.
As students become more comfortable with the current job market, it will be better for them. They will have a better strategy, a more realistic set of expectations, and will be willing to work harder. The class of 2004 came in with the expectation that it wasn’t going to be a piece of cake to get a job, are more realistic about what their opportunities are, and are willing to put more time into their job search. Attitude-wise they are also more able to deal with this current job market. In contrast, the class that graduated last year arrived at school thinking they just had to show for interviews and they were in. Just knowing that you are going to have to work harder is actually a big benefit.
Harbus: Looking back on the last year, I am sure it’s been an interesting road. If you had to do it all over again, what would you have done differently?
MM: In addition to continuously working to build our marketing efforts, I would have advertised more the marketing efforts we were already doing. This year we have had a much more proactive relationship with the first-year class than we did with last year’s first-year class. Frank and frequent communication with the last year’s class – we should have done that better and sooner. Probably more than anything, managing the communication to students – being more aggressive about that is something I would have done differently.