Merrick Remains Bullish on the Job Market

It is the middle of Hell Week, and Matt Merrick is cautious but pleased.
Although it is “still very early” in the recruiting season, all indicators are up. The number of companies recruiting on campus rose by 20 percent over last year, while the number of first round interviews is up 35 percent.

The punch line? In typical years, between 55 to 65 percent of first year students get first round interviews; this year it was over 75 percent. The feedback from recruiters has been overwhelmingly positive, both regarding the preparation and the attitudes of the students.

The numbers for second year students are similar and equally encouraging.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that students can relax and coast through the rest of the recruiting season, but it is a welcome change from the 2001-2002 interview period, which took place after the economy had shed over one million jobs in the wake of September 11th. The job-seeker’s experience in that environment, coming off the sellers’ market of 1995-2000, was a shock akin to jumping into Lake Erie in January! In the former period, students had received multiple offers, sometimes before they had even met with a company representative. Suddenly, opportunities became few and far between. As a result, both the business school and Career Services came under considerable fire from students who were used to recruiters fighting over them. HBS MBAs now felt they were being left out to dry and many feared what they would do if they didn’t find jobs by the summer. Needless to say, it was not a happy time for the school or the students.

This year those memories seem very far away, which is not entirely by accident. Over the last two years the school hired a dedicated marketing team to call on companies worldwide and invite them to recruit at HBS.

The companies are “mostly large, brand name companies in major cities,” says Merrick. This year the fruits of Career Service’s efforts include Pixar, Diageo, Nike, Discovery Communications and Home Depot – companies that have that never before or rarely recruited at HBS.

Another significant change is the expanded use of career counselors that provide MBAs with personalized career strategy sessions. “Previously, a student might have to wait a month to see a career counselor,” says Merrick. “Today you can see one within a couple of days.” The service is popular and 75 percent of first year students have already taken advantage of it.

So let’s say you have gone through Hell Week but didn’t find anything that quite fit. What now?

Merrick recommends a three-step self-evaluation. First, assess how you think you performed. Second, determine what you learned from the experience; Merrick calls this “listening to the market.” Did the interviews convince you that private equity would keep you challenged and engrossed? Or did you recoil in horror at the talk of 80-hour weeks?

Finally, review your pre-Hell Week strategy. Does your career strategy still make sense given what you know now?

“Only 30 to 40 percent of the class will actually wrap up their internship in the next week or two,” says Merrick. That can be a blessing in disguise – last year, some “phenomenal” internships were posted last April and May.

Companies that recruit in the spring tend to be smaller high tech companies, entertainment and media firms, and private equity and venture capital (which recruit both early and late).

Merrick believes that one of the most effective job strategies is often overlooked: creating your own internship. Suppose you have been talking with a firm and there appears to be rapport and interest on both sides – but nothing is available. “Propose two or three projects that might be helpful to the company,” suggests Merrick. (Having said that, Career Services hasn’t kept any formal records on students who have done so.)

Another tried-and-true strategy is to contact HBS alumni at your dream company. “I would encourage students to have their act together before they talk to these people,” said Merrick. “You should not be calling a director or vice president to learn about the firm.” Instead, Merrick advocates speaking with junior people first to make sure the reconnaissance is thoroughly complete. Furthermore, when you are ready to call on someone higher up in the target organization, have a specific request in mind – “the more specific, the better.”

By this point, students should have narrowed their search to two or three industries. Career Services begins to focus also; instead of providing large scale, structured programs as they did before Hell Week, now the activity shifts to personalized, one-on-one coaching.

“Any student who puts forth a reasonable amount of effort this year should be able to find a job,” says Merrick. Yet despite early indicators of success, Merrick isn’t ready to declare victory. He has too much work to do.

As do the students.