Long After Graduation, Alumni Return for Job Help

By KAREN ALEXANDER
New York Times
July 27, 2003

Megan Frank wasn't what most business schools would consider a particularly loyal alumna. She received her M.B.A. from the Goizueta Business School at Emory University in 2001, took a job in brand management at the Atlanta office of Eastman Kodak and didn't look back.

Then, in April, Ms. Frank was laid off from her job. Her severance package was thin, the economy was weak, and she knew she had to look anywhere she could for leads. Through her alma mater, she found a pleasant surprise: a job.

Like other business schools that have scrambled to help their displaced alumni navigate shaky economic times, with varying degrees of success, Emory's employs a full-time career coach focused exclusively on the needs of graduates.

Good M.B.A. programs have always made it a priority to help current students land their first jobs after graduation. After all, job placement rates and strong career services are the currency by which graduate business schools build their reputations. But many programs — including state and private schools — have decided that providing lifelong career guidance to their graduates pays handsome dividends as well.

Happy, loyal, gainfully employed alumni are more likely to help replenish a school's coffers down the road, and can be priceless conduits back to their companies for other alumni and current students.

Ms. Frank, 29, took advantage of her school's free online resources and one-on-one career counseling. And by networking at a school-sponsored happy hour in Atlanta, she landed a position as a consultant for the Zyman Marketing Group just a month after she was laid off. She describes the position as her dream job and says she is even earning more money.

Working through her business school network gave Ms. Frank an instant sense of community, and she now says she intends to repay the favor many times forward. "It's almost an unspoken obligation," she said. "Now that I've been in the situation, when someone calls on me for help, I'll do anything I can to help someone else out."

Business schools' career placement programs have long had open-door policies for their alumni. But the paltry job market of the last couple of years, and a deluge of requests from out-of-work alumni, have prompted many schools to redouble their efforts. (The unemployment rate rose to a nine-year high of 6.4 percent in June, leading even more people to ride out the job drought in graduate school.)

The schools say the alumni programs have become increasingly popular. It's difficult, though, to gauge these programs' success, because many schools have not kept track of the people using them.

Among the services for alumni are online resources, networking events and job-search seminars offered around the country, and one-on-one career coaching. As word has spread about the offerings, they have also become popular among people who already have jobs but are contemplating their next career move.

Helping alumni "has become a major issue of concern that schools need to respond to," said Sheila Steiner, director of M.B.A. career services at the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. "A lot of schools are saying, `I just finished putting away their résumés after they graduated, and now they're back.' They have seen a crush of alumni." Ms. Steiner is also on the board of the M.B.A. Career Services Council, an association of career services directors.

At Stanford's Graduate School of Business, a full-time position was created last spring to deal exclusively with the employment needs of alumni. In May, the Stern School of Business at New York University opened its Career Center for Working Professionals, with a staff of five, to work with alumni as well as the school's part-time and executive M.B.A. students.

"The typical recruiting that goes on at an M.B.A. program is by companies looking for entry-level M.B.A. positions," said Gary Fraser, assistant dean of career development at Stern. Now the school hopes to make inroads among recruiters who specialize in more experienced people as well, he said.

The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern employs five part-time consultants (three near Chicago, one in Los Angeles and one in Atlanta) to work free with its alumni. At the Graziadio School of Business and Management at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., the number of alumni seeking career development support has risen 25 percent in the last year. M.B.A. graduates now make up 40 percent of the people served by the business school's career resources office.

The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania now provides alumni with free access to otherwise costly online resources, like the business news service Factiva and the executive-level job search site ExecuNet. (ExecuNet, for instance, charges members $399 for 360 days of service.)

"We all got a little bit lazy during the boom years; we didn't have to get too aggressive," said Peter Degnan, who became the director of M.B.A. career management at Wharton 10 months ago after 20 years in investment banking. "Now the office has to be far more proactive for our students. And in reforming the department, we very quickly realized that the alumni world is a very important part of that."

 
With 77,000 alumni, Wharton can offer its students a powerful array of connections and networking opportunities. But at the same time, '`we realized that a lot of alumni were having their own employment problems," Mr. Degnan said. "You've got to be able to give as well as take," he added.

Wharton has maintained an alumni job board for years but previously did not do much to promote it. Now, Mr. Degnan said, he is reaching out more to corporate recruiters, letting them know that "this is a really cheap, easy way for employers to tap into our talent."

So far, the number of job postings at Wharton is up nearly 70 percent since the beginning of 2002. In one recent listing, a major company was looking for a chief financial officer.

The University of Virginia's Darden Graduate School of Business Administration has maintained a career services office exclusively for alumni for five years, financed entirely through a private foundation established by the alumni. At first, about 80 percent of its patrons were employed. Now, about 80 percent of the people who use its services are out of work.

"There's been a huge shift in the nature of what people need," said Herbert Crowder, Darden's director of alumni career services. A former banking executive who says his previous career often put him in the position of cutting people's jobs, Mr. Crowder has become a revered networking matchmaker among Darden alumni. His three-person office counsels about 750 alumni a year. "We pick up people who are in transition at a fairly tricky emotional time," Mr. Crowder said. He coaches the newly unemployed on everything from how to negotiate a severance agreement to understanding the job landscape.

"Defining what comes next is as hard as finding it," he said. "Recent graduates should expect to take a minimum of six months to find the next job. More senior people can easily take 12 to 18 months to find their next job. They need to know that because they have to pace themselves emotionally, physically and financially. They need to get set up for the marathon that they're going to have to go through to reach the market."

With guidance from Mr. Crowder, Walter Shill, 46, of Washington, left his consulting job at McKinsey & Company to become chief executive of a start-up, Returnbuy, which was sold in March. Now Mr. Shill is consulting for another Darden alumnus whom he met through Mr. Crowder's web of alumni connections.

Mr. Shill, who received his M.B.A. from Darden in 1987, says that when he was a business student, he never considered what the school might offer him after graduation. But now he likens the experience to buying a car — it has to work for you long after you drive it off the dealership lot.

"These days, if you're buying a car, you're buying a 100,000-mile or 5- or 10-year warranty," Mr. Shill said. "You're not going to learn everything you need to know in the first few years out of business school. I think of the career services the way I think of continuing education. It's like going in for a tuneup."