Alternative Career Paths for MBAs

Posted by Cara Scharf on May 5, 2011
Alternative Career Paths for MBAs
Searching for Blue Skies in Dreary Times
An MBA degree from a top university is supposed to be a golden ticket to the hallowed boardrooms of high finance. But with the rocky economy tossing the financial sector about and new government regulation expected to further tighten the reigns on industry spending, many a dream of making it on The Street has been dashed.

Those who lusted after big-name financial firms are confronted with some particularly harsh realities. The financial industry has shed almost 200,000 jobs since January, and several companies that were popular destinations for MBAs were absorbed by other companies (Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch), went bankrupt (Lehman Brothers), or now face uncertain futures (Citigroup). “From the collapse of Lehman Brothers through to now, we’ve seen the single most dramatic shift in the employment market,” says Derek Walker, head of careers at Oxford’s Saïd Business School in the United Kingdom.

The result of this shift is that MBAs are being forced to have more flexible career aspirations and look to industries other than the formerly high-flying banking sector. Fortunately, new companies are showing up on campus, taking the opportunity to poach top talent. “We’re beginning to see the emergence of employing organizations that were not necessarily high profile among MBAs before, proving attractive now,” says Walker.

The same changes are occurring on this side of the pond. “We had a number of new companies here on campus,” says Roxanne Hori, assistant dean and director of the career management center at Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management. “And it isn’t just one industry. There are medical device manufacturers, traditional manufacturers, consumer packaging companies, niche consulting firms, and even regional and boutique banks.”

MBAs are finding that they need to focus less on big names and seriously consider the newcomers that have emerged. And while many of these companies may not hail from the “traditional” industries that have typically courted B-school grads in large numbers, they still offer challenging and interesting roles, some with unique benefits. Here we will explore the merits of just two of these industries.

Alternative Career Paths for MBAs: Working for the USA
As Wall Street attempts to clear the debris of the economic fallout and rebuild its tarnished reputation, the nonprofit and public sectors have become an attractive new option for MBAs. The stimulus bill signed into law by President Barack Obama has opened the doors for spending and put government and nonprofits in a good position to hire. Schools are already seeing the results—35 percent saw an increase in government recruiting and 12 percent in nonprofit, according to a recent survey by the MBA Career Services Council.  

When it comes to government jobs, salary has long been a deterrent for MBAs. But now that Wall Street’s soaring salaries have been dampened by the economic crisis, other job characteristics are rising in importance. Government jobs offer quite a few added benefits: the public sector is generally more stable because government budgets are less susceptible to economic fluctuations, schedules are less grueling and more flexible, health benefits are notoriously good, and continued education is widely supported.

Working for Uncle Sam also means being at the forefront of research and policy-making. “I think MBAs have negative perceptions about government jobs, that it’s a type of drone mentality,” says Kerry Willigan, career consultant at the George Mason University School of Management. “But it’s more dynamic than that. You get a lot of responsibility and the opportunity to have some sort of impact.”
Willigan also stresses the wide range of jobs available. MBAs with finance concentrations will find positions as upper-level IRS auditors or analysts at agencies, such as the Department of Transportation and the Department of Homeland Security. “If you name any agency, they’re likely looking at MBAs as a good resource,” she says.

Jemina Bernard’s passion for improving education drew her to her role as executive director of Teach for America’s New York City region. Along the way, she picked up an MBA in finance from Columbia. The degree continues to play a central role in her day-to-day work. “For one, I’m able to use all my general management, change management, and entrepreneurial skills to handle our growing region and my 73-member team. Second, my MBA network is critical for fundraising.”

B-school grads should have no problem capitalizing on their education at a nonprofit in the same way as at a private company, says Bernard, because organizations in both sectors are engaged in essentially the same business operations— human resources, business development, finance, and administration. With similar tasks at hand, the nonprofit environment can be just as dynamic and challenging, and MBAs are highly valued for what they bring to the game. “I’m increasingly focused on hiring MBAs,” says Bernard. “In fact, one of my last hires was from Columbia.”

Plus, salaries are comparable for experienced applicants. According to Rick Bressler, director of business development at Professionals for Nonprofits, a 2008 salary survey by the staffing firm showed CEOs at nonprofits in New York City can make up to $350,000, executive directors up to $300,000, and CFOs up to $200,000.

Even if you’re not initially passionate about the cause of a nonprofit, Bernard thinks that the enthusiasm is contagious. “What I’ve seen happen is that we’ve been successful at luring people to a specific role,” says Bernard. “Then once they’re part of the team, they get hooked on the mission.”

Something to keep in mind, though, is that a spot at a nonprofit is no sure thing. Plenty of professionals from other sectors have migrated to nonprofits, making for a rich, competitive applicant pool. In other words, don’t swagger into an interview as if the job’s in the bag. The work is demanding and specialized.  “I think there’s a misperception that nonprofits are easier to work for,” Bernard says. “I’m often floored by people who come in for interviews and don’t know the basics about education reform or our organization.”

Bernard suggests rigorously researching a nonprofit the way you would a private company, and bringing the same acumen to the interview.

And, of course, show your commitment: “You may be excited to work for a nonprofit now, but when the economy gets better will you go back to the corporate world?”

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