Careers

What employers want from MBA graduates—and what they don’t

Harvard Business School students. (File photo).
Brian Snyder | Reuters
Harvard Business School students. (File photo).

Sionade Robinson has an almost impossible task. As associate director for the MBA program at Cass Business School in London, she must manage the expectations of high achievers about where their business school degree will take them.

One student arrived in her office distraught after being rejected by a large investment bank from its fast-track management program. They were offering just 15 places worldwide, Robinson recalls.

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"People think an MBA is a golden ticket, when it is not," she says.

Landing a job after business school has never been straightforward. But a new survey by the Financial Times could help shed light on the process. The anonymous survey reveals what skills leading employers want — and what they don't — from MBA graduates. You can read the methodology below.

Our findings suggest students should prepare themselves for a changing MBA jobs market. Our subsequent conversations with employers found graduates should be realistic about the roles for which their MBA degree alone will qualify them.

One in three of the employers we surveyed said they struggled to find business school graduates with the right skills.

The five most important skills were not core MBA subjects, such as finance and marketing, but more loosely defined qualities, or so-called soft skills, such as the ability to work with a wide variety of people and the ability to prioritize. Of these, employers said the ability among MBA graduates to manage their time effectively was the most difficult to find.

The findings may be explained in part by a perception gap. Employers in some sectors, such as oil and gas, civil engineering, transport and energy, see little need for senior staff to hold an MBA degree. Part of the reason, they say, is that they do not believe that business schools teach the right skills.

Business schools are reacting by trying to broaden the pool of MBA employers. At Chicago's Booth School of Business, technology companies, such as Amazon and Google, have overtaken management consultancies and investment banks as the biggest hirers of MBA graduates in recent years. The school is looking for new sectors in which companies may be interested in hiring their MBAs.

"MBAs hear very often that they are special during their courses — when coming back to business, reality often hits them hard." —survey respondent

Julie Morton, associate dean of careers services and corporate relations at Booth, says half her team of 22 are employed specifically to spread the word about the value of hiring MBA graduates. Many of the companies new to hiring MBA graduates are interested in soft skills, such as the ability to network — one of the most important skills cited in the FT survey, Morton adds. The trick is convincing companies that MBA students have them. "We work with companies all the time where the MBA is not the goal," Morton says.

Several employers told the FT that MBA qualifications were not their priority. At Servest, the facilities management company, four people in senior posts have MBAs. But the company, which employs 51,000 people across the UK and South Africa, did not seek MBA graduates to fill any of these roles, according to Dennis Zietsman, Servest's deputy chairman."

"It's the type of person rather than the business degree that we focus on," he says. "[MBA graduates] have never been our star performers.

"Some joining the company with business masters degrees have struggled to convert theory into practice, he says. "Case studies in the MBA programs seem to be based on big corporations, often American, which cannot be applied to smaller corporations that have cultures different to those that they've studied."

"Often, MBAs do not have much patience. When companies hire them, the MBAs have been off the market for between one and two years. It takes time to integrate and learn about a new company." —survey respondent

Neither are MBA graduates a priority for the clients of Mark Butter, director of Blueprint Recruitment Solutions, a company that specializes in executive appointments for the oil and gas, marine, civil engineering, transport and energy sectors.

"They are far more likely to be concerned with whether the candidate has industry qualifications, such as being a chartered engineer," Butter says.

Adrian O'Connor, founding director of Global Accounting Network, which helps with appointments of qualified accounting professionals up to finance director level, says an MBA is

Some clients will accept an MBA instead of an accounting qualification, O'Connor notes. "This is particularly true in either the more commercial finance roles, or indeed at board level."

The FT research suggests there may be an opportunity for business schools to market graduates more effectively among companies not used to hiring at this level. Even among O'Connor's clients, the perception is that business school graduates are good at networking — listed in our survey as among the five most important skills to employers.

"Clients view it as a strong testimonial of someone's intelligence and ability to apply that," O'Connor says.

"Too much tactical execution and not enough big-picture thinking." —survey respondent

Ilona Drozd is campus recruiter for the online travel site Expedia in Europe. The company became interested in hiring MBAs for senior strategy roles in part because many of its board directors were MBA graduates, Drozd says.

Despite this, Expedia does not have a specific graduate program for recruits with an MBA. This year the company, which employs more than 20,000 people worldwide, hired just nine MBA graduates in the UK and three in the US.

The most common reason for rejecting applicants coming in at the senior level, where an MBA graduate would typically aspire to start within an organisation, is a lack of cultural fit and an inability to solve complicated problems, according to Drozd.

"The ability to deal with ambiguity is missing." —survey respondent

Soft skills, such as teamwork, are important but they are not enough, she adds. "The ideal candidate is someone we would like to have long term, which means they have to really want to work at Expedia."

Kevin Marvinac is both an MBA graduate and chief operating officer at TransparentCareer, a database of salary data for people hired from business schools, which is aimed at helping MBA graduates hone their search to find the ideal job.

He believes that an MBA is helpful in securing a rewarding senior executive role, but admits that it is not sufficient in industries where people are also expected to have certain technical skills or experience. The FT survey found big data analysis, for example, was one of the hardest skills to recruit.

"It is really hard to be a product manager at a tech company, for instance, if you don't know how to code," Marvinac says.

About the survey

The FT asked 48 employers what professional skills they want — but cannot find — in MBA graduates. We surveyed leading businesses around the world, chosen for their popularity as recruiters. They are headquartered in all continents and in countries including Brazil, China and Nigeria as well as Europe and the US.

The businesses were spread across 12 sectors, among them e-commerce, industry and finance. We kept the responses anonymous.

We asked the companies to rate 29 so-called soft and hard skills according to importance and how difficult they are to hire. The skills most and least valued by the surveyed companies are presented in the graphics.

We intend to expand and improve the survey in 2018. If you have comments and suggestions, or you are an MBA employer who would like to take part, email business.education@ft.com

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This article originally appeared on the Financial Times.