Millennial MBAs: Charting New Career Paths

By Lisa Feldman

It surprises me, but many people still assume that MBA students focus only on traditional business careers.  For a long time, it is true, business schools attracted a high proportion of young consultants and bankers who had worked a year or two as analysts and expected to return as associates on the partner track.

But that has changed. BloombergBusinessweek reported last year that traditional on-campus recruiting has declined at top business schools.  Yet graduates from those same schools saw very high employment rates.  Where were they looking for those jobs?

The short answer is that many in this generation of MBAs are looking outside traditional career tracks, because they want work that has personal meaning and social impact.  It could be in an educational start-up, a social enterprise, or in a corporate program on sustainability or social responsibility.  It could be almost anywhere.

Look at recent Berkeley-Haas alumni, such as Kristin Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Toby, co-founders of Revolution Foods.

Kristen Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Toby, co-founders Revolution Foods.

Kristen Groos Richmond and Kirsten Saenz Toby, co-founders Revolution Foods.

As a result, the MBA job search is changing. The average full-time Berkeley-Haas MBA student is 28 years old, which means that this group falls squarely in the Millennial generation – people born between 1980 and 2000. Millennials have been criticized for being selfish, among other traits, but their career motivations are more complex than that. A raft of surveys shows that Millennials are idealistic and want more than just financial success.  They want to accomplish something of value, often for the broader public good, and many chart their own paths to achieve those goals.

Certainly, a substantial share of MBAs still seek traditional  careers in banking and consulting.  But there is no typical MBA path any more.   Millennials are “an army of one,” each having been told that he or she is special and unique.  The data on MBAs shows that this generation is looking for happiness as well as money.  At Berkeley-Haas, our students search for social impact in every traditional category of industry, from consulting and finance to consumer products, energy, and technology.

Even at the heart of the MBA stereotype, finance, we see a shift away from investment banking and toward impact investing.  This interest has been so high that we have added courses on impact investing and social finance to our curriculum.  We also provide experiential learning programs, including the yearlong management of our $2 million Haas Socially Responsible Investment Fund.  In career services, we have added a separate communications channel just for students who pursue impact investing —  and firms are seeking out those students.

Even students who pursue traditional MBA roles are imposing new demands for work-life balance.  They no longer want to work 80-hour workweeks, and employers are responding.   To retain talent, Goldman Sachs and other firms have begun to restructure junior roles to improve work-life balance.

The search for variety,  flexibility, and impact is driving many MBAs toward start-up companies – many of our graduates launch ventures themselves, and even more join smaller companies that have momentum and offer the potential for impactful career success.  They want flexibility in work hours, but they also want to assert their ideas at companies where decisions and processes have not yet been solidified.

As a result, the MBA job search has become far more individualized.  On-campus recruiting, where entire slates of candidates compete for a position whose start date may be 10 months out, still works for some employers and some students.   It certainly provides predicitability and stability of career path.  But students are pursuing jobs through other routes as well, using our strong Berkeley network and their own drive for impact to find unique roles.  At Berkeley-Haas, we have structured our MBA career services to ensure that every student receives personalized support in his or her search.  It has worked.  Despite the macro decline in traditional on-campus corporate recruiting, 96 percent of our full-time MBA students in the past two years have found jobs within three months of graduation.

As leaders, teachers, and mentors, our role is to equip these students to achieve their goals.  We are handing them a world that we broke, and we must do all we can to help them fix it.

Lisa Feldman (Berkeley MBA 95) is a member of the Institute for Business & Social Impact.  She served as Executive Director of Berkeley-Haas’ MBA Career Management Group from 2011-2013.

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