MBA students turning away from banking jobs

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Mary Boss, careers director at Insead, the French business school, says the message from banking recruiters remains pessimistic. "Everyone is saying that hiring looks very tight. Banks are presenting on campus, but they are only engaged in hiring for specific positions in areas like derivatives."

The downbeat tone from investment banks contrasts with optimism among management consultants who compete for top MBA students. Boss says that although the Insead term has only just started, consultants are queuing up to recruit on campus.

"They are saying that business for 2003 looks better and that they will need more people. Regional offices that weren't hiring last year are hiring again."

This pattern is being repeated on the other side of the Atlantic. Regina Resnick, director of the careers service at Columbia Business School, says that after two difficult years, consulting appears to be undergoing a revival. Leading firms such as McKinsey and Bain have indicated that numbers will be higher, she says.

With rivals gearing up, banks risk missing out on top MBA talent. At the same time, the lack of places on offer at investment banks means that all but the most determined students think twice before applying.

At Harvard Business School, the number of investment banking summer internships available this summer to the class of 2003 was only one-third of that on offer during the boom years of 1999 and 2000. As a result, students are applying instead for marketing, not-for-profit, and general management positions, according to The Harbus student newspaper.

Banks in London say recruitment of MBAs for 2002 has been sharply down on last year, with no sign of an upturn next year.

Recruiters worry that when conditions improve they will be unable to attract enough interest from students, as by then they will be disillusioned with the idea of a banking career.

Concerns are compounded by the fact that those who undertook MBA internships in 2002 did not see the industry in its best light. A student who spent his summer at Goldman Sachs said: "Some people at the firm were made redundant. Others seemed to feel that the summer interns were in competition for their jobs. The atmosphere was sometimes aggressive."

There are also signs that the internship process itself is under some strain. Taking on candidates as interns the summer before they graduate has become banks' favoured method of assessing graduate and MBA hires.

But the process means that offers must be made a year in advance. In an uncertain economic climate, that time frame can be a problem.

At Insead, Boss says many of this year's interns are waiting to hear whether they will be offered a full-time place. Resnick at Columbia says that MBA recruitment is increasingly ad hoc: "Companies traditionally had the ability to judge what staffing requirements would be longer term. Now, decisions are taken much more on an as-needed basis." So the class of 2003 may yet find themselves wooed by banking recruiters as the year progresses. But by that time they may be committed elsewhere.