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How Will the Current Recession Affect MBA Grads?

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Swetha ArbuckleThis past spring, the COVID-19 pandemic had a dramatic impact on the business school experience. Schools pivoted to online classes, and students made arrangements to fulfill their internships virtually, unsure when – or if – they’d be back on campus. There is no doubt the COVID-19 recession will have lasting effects on the business world, but what can today’s MBA students do to keep their careers on track?

While the pandemic presents unusual challenges, this isn’t the first time MBA students have faced a recession. Swetha Arbuckle, Senior HR Leader, Amazon Web Services, graduated from Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in 2009.  In her first year as an MBA student, she felt the effects of the recession during her internship search. She recalls, “Generally, people found internships, but when you were looking to get a full-time offer from that internship, companies were no longer consistently able to commit to what they thought they could commit to at the time they made you the internship offer.”  A student might think, “All right, if I nail this internship this summer, I'm going to get an offer. Everything will be great,” only to discover that the company was unable to follow through.

Later that fall, when MBA students were interviewing for full-time opportunities, Arbuckle says, “There were a lot of companies that were extending interviews, you were booking your flight, and they were canceling them a week before they were scheduled, saying, ‘We’ve just made the decision to pause all hiring.’” What happened in Q4 of 2008 is similar to what’s going on now. She says, “There was a lot of uncertainty for companies on what they could do with their growth, and that translated directly to new hires in certain industries.”

While some business areas are hurting, Arbuckle says, “There are definitely industries that have come out of this with more business or busier than they’ve been before, especially in technology and in the healthcare space. Federal consulting has been an area that has also seen growth.”

When she talks to students who are in the job market now, she advises them, “Stay really open-minded about how your expertise, your skills, and your passion areas might translate to something different that maybe you've never really thought of before.” Even if you entered business school with a particular focus or specialization, your MBA gives you flexibility. Arbuckle says, “Ultimately, you're going into these programs with the intent to walk away with a well-rounded business education.”

She notes that in a tough job market, people who entered business school intending to make a career switch may find themselves gravitating back toward jobs that are close to their previous experience – even though they want to be doing something new. She cautions them against taking opportunities that aren’t what they’re looking for, and says, “When you're graduating, there's kind of a sweet spot, that first maybe three to six months up to a year after you graduate, that's the perfect opportunity to be making that career switch. I think a lot of companies are willing to look at you as a candidate more based on your potential and less based on your exact skill set in that exact area.” 

Instead of relying on their school to provide career pathways, Arbuckle encourages students to use their personal and alumni networks to seek out opportunities. That’s how she got hired at Amazon. She did her MBA internship at a tech company in Seattle with the understanding that it wouldn’t end with a full-time offer. While that wasn’t ideal, she says, “I knew that it would be an internship where I would learn a lot.” Because she was in Seattle, she traveled in the same tech circles as people who worked at Amazon, and her persistence helped her get a foot in the door. She says, “I think it actually helped me stand out among the crowd to the MBA recruiters at Amazon, because I wasn't coming to them through the traditional channels.”

Arbuckle is still at Amazon and loves her job, which isn’t a traditional HR position. She says, “I get to do a lot of work with our customers, and I get to do a lot of work integrated with the business. I’m kind of embedded as part of the business leadership team with a lot of decisions that pertain to the area of the business that I work in.” She often finds herself tackling a challenge that she’s never had to solve before, and says, “Sometimes it's also the first time our customers have tackled a similar situation, so you're helping not only our company figure it out, but you're helping our customers figure it out, which is really pretty cool.”

Her favorite thing about her job is that no two days are the same – there’s always something new and different. Arbuckle’s willingness to embrace the unknown and take on challenges has helped her thrive, and she sets a great example for MBA grads facing an uncertain future.

Forté is a non-profit organization working to change the balance of power in the workplace. Their alliance of 100,000+ women from diverse backgrounds, industries, and career stages help women achieve their MBAs and rock the business world in leadership roles.