After working in public accounting for three years, Joe Fusco, wanted to become an investment banker. So he invested more than $70,000 and two years into an M.B.A.
But as he prepares to graduate from the University of Notre Dame in Indiana next month, Mr. Fusco, 27 years old, hasn't had any luck landing a position in finance. The only solution he has is to go back to his accounting roots. "It's a tough pill to swallow, but I've come to the conclusion that I can't sit and wait and cross my fingers," he says.
The majority of students at top business schools attend the programs as a way to boost their skills to change careers. This year, making that happen has turned into a nearly impossible task. And that means a significant number of soon-to-be grads who entered school back in 2007 are being forced back to their pre-M.B.A. careers in the hopes of finding a job.
"Career switchers are getting hit the hardest," says Kristen Lynas, associate director of career management at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business. Those looking to switch fields make up the majority of each incoming class at the school, she adds. "When the market is hot, employers are more willing to take the risk ... [now] employers tend to go with the safe choice."
Steve Canale, manager of recruiting and staffing services at General Electric Co., in Fairfield, Conn., says that with so many applicants, previous experience is getting a bigger emphasis when the company weeds out candidates. "That's the sweet spot -- people who have industry expertise in the industries that we're strong in," says Mr. Canale, who hires about 120 M.B.A. students each year for a sales and marketing program.
In past years, GE would have been more open to M.B.A.s who were less of a match. But applications for the program grew 30% this year and Mr. Canale was able to be more experience-selective, he says.
With firms like Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns -- which used to bring on upward of 800 M.B.A.s combined every year -- now defunct, and fewer finance jobs around, more business-school graduates are leaning on their experience to get them in the door. For example, the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business has typically placed 50% of its M.B.A. alumni in finance, most at large investment banks. This year, students in all majors have been turning back to their previous fields to find work, says Char Bennington, Chicago's senior associate director of career management. Ms. Bennington says other industries, like consulting and marketing, are also hiring fewer people and looking for experience.
After Johnson & Johnson didn't extend an offer to Jareer Oweimrin, a second-year M.B.A. at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who worked as a strategic marketing intern with the company, Mr. Oweimrin is putting his plans to get a health-care marketing role on hold for the time being. He is now trying to capitalize on his background in pharmaceutical sales and is in talks about returning to a sales job at a former employer, a major drug maker. He hopes such a move will eventually help him move into marketing. "The motto here [at school] is 'take what you've got,'" says Mr. Oweimrin, who spent about $70,000 on his degree. "You can't be as picky as you want to be."
Even consulting firms -- known for hiring career switchers -- are looking for M.B.A.s with previous experience to hire.
Brianne Shally, 29, who graduates from Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management this spring, says she feels safer going back to a consulting job in Chicago for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, her previous employer, rather than make a career change. "I have a proven track record, if it comes down to names on a board" for a layoff or hiring, says Ms. Shally. She says consulting jobs haven't been easy to land for fellow classmates, though. This year, she says, firms "were not willing to take a risk on students who did not have previous consulting experience."
Patricia Phillips, executive director of career management at University of Rochester's Simon Graduate School of Business, says students are beginning to recognize that these days, it could take two or three career moves to make a switch.
That's how Abhishek Sunkersett is approaching his first post-M.B.A. job. Instead of landing a job in strategy consulting or finance, Mr. Sunkersett, 28, a second-year student at the University of Texas-Austin McCombs School of Business, says his engineering background and technical experience working in the Mumbai office of Deloitte helped land him a position at the Chicago office of Infosys Technologies Ltd., an Indian information-technology services vendor. For now, Mr. Sunkersett says he'll focus on consulting projects involving technology, with hopes of pursuing more strategy-related projects in the firm. "My experience was a big advantage," says Mr. Sunkersett.
But the idea of returning to an old career has some soon-to-be grads questioning the value of their degrees. A traditional post-M.B.A. position increases a degree-holder's salary by 74% according to an annual survey from the Graduate Management Admissions Council.
Besides being unable to use his newly honed marketing skills, Mr. Oweimrin, says he is worried that he'll be earning the same as he did as a pharmaceutical rep -- about $60,000 -- instead of the $100,000 marketing job he expected to land after the M.B.A. program.
And Mr. Fusco says he is less certain his investment in the degree was worthwhile. Many of the auditing positions that he is finding don't require a graduate business degree. "These are positions that I was pretty qualified for even pre-M.B.A," he says.