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MBA grads — past and present — face a ‘challenging’ job market

Tim Kieff (left) gives some pointers on job hunting to a group of fellow MBA alumni. Following along are Nathan Cline of Chandler (center) and Andrew Lloyd of Phoenix. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Tim Kieff (left) gives some pointers on job hunting to a group of fellow MBA alumni. Following along are Nathan Cline of Chandler (center) and Andrew Lloyd of Phoenix. (Photo by Bill Coates)

Two hours after Tim Kieff was laid off, he called Jim Clayton.

As career management director for the W.P. Carey School of Business MBA program, Clayton works to find jobs for new graduates. Clayton credits the program for placing 92 percent of the 2008 master of business administration class, within three months of graduation.

Clayton is a naturally upbeat person. Sitting in his office at the school’s Graduate Career Management Center on the Arizona State University Tempe campus, he doesn’t refer to today’s job market as poor or hopeless.

But he knows it has hit something of a rough patch.

“You know what, it’s challenging,” Clayton says.

The numbers for the 2009 class haven’t been compiled, but they’re likely going to reflect what Clayton calls a selective job market. The downturn not only affects new graduates looking for work, but MBA alumni who found jobs when times were good, only to lose them.

Kieff, class of 2006, was one of them.

He had been working at American Express for two-and-a-half years when he was laid off in January. After calling Clayton, he learned he was not alone.

“I was clearly not the only alum who was struggling,” says Kieff, 33.
The MBA career center, Clayton says, does not close the door to former grad-students. “We provide lifelong management services to our alumni,” he says. “They can come for counseling and advising.”

The need now is that much greater. Starting last year, more ASU MBA grads were finding themselves out of work. So the career center began to host what amounted a four-week seminar to help graduates from years past dust-off their résumés and interviewing skills. They call their informal workshops EmployED – with ED forming the past tense as well as standing for education.

The alumni meet in groups of 10 or so once a week.

Kieff joined one of the groups. He not only participated, but took notes and put together his own Power Point presentation. He soon ended up sitting at the head of the conference table leading the workshops, with help from Clayton.

“They asked me if I would be willing to facilitate these sessions,” he says. “I clearly had a lot of free time, but I really wanted to give back.”

Kieff himself has been in the hunt for some time. By his own count, he has sent out more than 100 résumés. He brings to the table a wealth of experience about the pitfalls of applying for jobs.

“He knows a lot of stuff,” Clayton says.

Clayton is on hand at EmployED to answer technical questions.

At the meetings, the first order of business is to deal with the emotional trauma of losing a job. Kieff compared it to the five stages of grieving – naming four of them himself.

“There’s the anger, there’s the frustration, there’s the bargaining, then there’s rationalization,” Kieff says.
Group members are encouraged to get it all out in first the meeting.

“If you’re mentally and emotionally just not there and not willing to put the time and effort into your job search, you’re really not going to be successful,” he says.

Clayton cites the movie, “Good Will Hunting.” In one scene, the character played by Robin Williams talks to a Matt Damon’s character, a genius who ends up pushing a broom.

“He’s basically saying the circumstances in your life happening right now are not your fault,” Clayton says. “And that’s a message I bring to every first meeting.”

The message is also one of preparation – getting your foot in the door and acing the interview. For
upcoming graduates, preparation is not left to chance. Finding jobs for the 80 or so full-time MBA students in each graduating class is, in itself, a full-time job. Clayton has seven career counselors under his wing. Their offices line the hall of the career center.

Along with Clayton, they advise students on job applications and résumés, as well as coach them on interviewing skills.

All students, for example, are put through mock interviews. Their performances are videotaped and critiqued. The mock interviews are behavioral-based, questioning potential employees on their past performances and how they would handle certain situations.

Kyle Deatherage credits the mock interviews for helping him pass his audition with Intel. He was offered an internship three months into his first year. That, in turn, led to a full-time job after he graduated in 2008. He recalls one behavioral-based question in the mock interview. He was asked to name a time he had to champion an unpopular decision. He didn’t have an answer for that one, at first. But he was ready the next time.

“When I did the interview with Intel, a very similar question came up, so I was able to answer it,” says Deatherage, 25.

Like Kieff, Deatherage did not take the traditional route to graduate school – that is, starting right in after getting a bachelor’s degree.

For many students, Clayton says, the program marks the path to a new career.

Deatherage enlisted in the Army right out of high school. He spent his entire five-year tour in Fairbanks, Alaska, where he was a firefighter. He also completed a college degree in accounting through a University of Maryland distance-learning program. At Intel in Chandler, he works as a senior finance officer.

Kieff, with a bachelor’s degree in international relations, was an aviation and environmental planner at airports. After getting his MBA, he sought a job in marketing. He hired on with American Express in an area known as business transformation.

“It was really business-process improvement,” he says.

But by 2008, the company began cutting back.

“They overgrew,” Kieff says. “And because of that, they cut 15 percent of their work force, out of 70,000 worldwide.”

He was among the 15 percent.

His prolonged job search has meant prolonged unemployment. Beyond the emotional setbacks, there’s the very real financial pinch. Kieff’s generous severance package went only so far. His unemployment benefits have run out, and he’s nearly gone through his savings. “And to be honest now, I’m probably going to have to start tapping my 401K,” Kieff says.

The job search, he admits, can be frustrating. But through it all, he says, he stays upbeat and keeps at it – checking job listings, contacting fellow alumni for leads and filling out applications.

Besides, companies don’t just stop hiring, Clayton says. Many looking for MBA graduates come calling at the career center. But Clayton says the center doesn’t sit and wait for recruiters to knock on the door.
The center makes a point to reach out to companies.

“I have a person who does new business development,” Clayton says.

On-campus recruiters can use the center’s interview rooms, though tight budgets are crimping travel plans for some companies. The career center, however, has a room that accommodates remote, two-way televised interviews – complete with a flat-screen monitor and a camera.

Recruiters are now a bit more selective, Clayton says. In the recession, some firms that used to recruit have decided to take a breather. That includes retail-oriented companies, he adds.

“They’ve had some particular challenges, and they haven’t come on campus,” Clayton says. “You know what the challenges are in retail. People aren’t buying stuff.”

On other hand, Chevron and other energy companies are still hiring, he says. And banks and financial institutions are picking up steam.

Just the same, choices for new graduates likely will be more limited.

They might have to be willing to move out of state. Or take a job that wasn’t at the top of the list.
“We always ask our students, ‘What is plan A? What is plan B,’” Clayton says.

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