By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 5/12/2009 8:01:10 AM ET 2009-05-12T12:01:10

Crashing on a friend’s couch this summer wasn’t what Matthew Zumbach expected.

When Zumbach entered Northwestern University in 2007, he had visions of working for a hedge fund some day.

But Zumbach, 28, who gets his MBA in June, got hit with a harsh economic reality. “The pay scales just aren’t there and even the jobs aren’t there, especially in the financial services sector,” he laments.

H. Victoria Myers, 31, who graduated with an MBA earlier this month, thought getting the degree would open more doors to higher level management jobs and more money. Alas, she couldn’t even match the position or salary she left behind.

“There’s not a lot out there for the level I was looking for,” explains Myers, who got a fast track MBA in one year from Oklahoma Christian University.

No matter which business school they attend, many MBA graduates are feeling the economic squeeze.

“Getting an MBA was never a guarantee for getting a certain job, it simply gave you a better probability for success,” says Dave Wilson, president and CEO, Graduate Management Admission Council, a nonprofit that owns and operates the entrance exam for MBA programs. “In many ways that probability of success was up to the economy.”

Unfortunately, the economy stinks right now, so newly minted MBAs find themselves in the same boat as many of their non-MBA counterparts. They're sending tons of resumes that go unanswered and rethinking their career goals and aspirations because the money and job opportunities just aren’t what they were even last year.

Steve Gellert, who will be graduating with an MBA from Cornell University’s Johnson School, found campus recruiting to be a bust. Many recruiters weren’t looking for full time hires, so he had to turn to sites like Monster.com and Hotjobs.com.

“I’ve applied to 15 or so jobs and haven’t heard back,” he says.

After climbing since 2003, the portion of MBA graduates with a job offer this year declined to 57 percent, down from 64 percent the previous year, according to the just-released annual GMAC Global Management Education Graduate Survey. The number of total job offers per graduate also decreased to 1.8 this year, from 2.3 in 2008. And the bump in salary many MBAs enjoy after graduation was not as pervasive this year with only 56 percent saying they expect an increase this year, down from 59 percent in the year-ago period.

Even the top business schools are feeling the pinch.

“The job market is challenging,” says Jana Kierstead, managing director of MBA Career Services, Harvard Business School.

About 80 percent of Harvard MBAs graduating this year have at least one offer, compared to 92 percent last year.

The economy, she says, “has really encouraged students to do more self reflection and has very much reality tested their risk tolerance.”

Dean Roger Jenkins of the Farmer School of Business at Miami University describes the job market for MBA grads right now as “just awful.”

“If they had known these would be the opportunities when they started their MBA they probably wouldn’t have come back to do the MBA," he said.

But the worsening economic picture hasn’t kept individuals from pursing the business degree.

The number of Graduate Management Admission Test exams given in the first four months of this year was 51,421, up from 50,923 in the same period last year.

When opportunities "dry up" in economic downturns, says Jose Ferreira, CEO of Knewton, an online graduate school prep company, "the need to differentiate from peers or switch career fields often prompts a return to school.”

For some, getting an MBA seemed like a great idea as recently as just few months ago.

“We started out the year really strong with jobs offers for students and recruiters signing up to come to campus,” says Joyce Rothenberg, director of the Career Management Center at the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management. “But as the year went out we had recruiters that canceled and fewer job offers.”

Younger MBAs with little work experience, in particular, are being hit hard, Rothenberg explains. “A lot of young people come to school and think an MBA is a golden ticket to a glorious future,” she says. But, she adds, “You still have to have to package. Employers want experience right now.”

MBAs who can adapt and are open to trying different positions to get to their ultimate goals will be the most well off even in this economy.

“I call it eating your brussels sprouts,” Vanderbilt Owen’s Rothenberg says. Graduating MBAs have to ask themselves: What is my goal? What are my personal skill gaps? “There may be huge demand for talent in two or three years," she says.

And there are jobs to be had if you hustle, say some MBA grads.

Francois Chirumberro, 30, is about to graduate from Columbia Business School. He landed a job in Management Consulting for the Boston Consulting Group even though he says it’s been extremely competitive.

“I had to be very focused, prepare my interviews with a great deal of care and network a lot,” he explains. “To this day a lot of my colleagues are trying to find a job and often have to go for second or third choice in term of companies or even career track.”

More than ever before, it’s about who you know, says Nick Zangari, MBA student at the University of San Diego, who will be graduating in December. “Many people are having a difficult time finding a job,” he says. “But I feel as though the ones who are trying really hard, researching on company's Web sites, preparing adequately for interviews, and working their connections, they are having no problems at all.”

And he believes internships may be the best route to a job for MBAs right now, having secured one himself this summer with a San Diego utility.

A summer internship through the National Park Service where she got to learn about finance, operations and develop business models seemed to pay off for Patty Foglesong. She is graduating from the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia on May 17.

“I was fortunate enough to have three full-time job offers, one with a major consulting firm, one with the Secret Service and one with the National Park Service,” says Foglesong. She'll be taking a job at the park service as a business management specialist in the Intermountain Region Office in Denver.

Some recent MBA grads are bypassing a management job search altogether because of the lousy economy and embarking on the road to entrepreneurship.

Myers, from Oklahoma, just started an online business that sells consumer electronics and accessories to women called ShopGadgetGirl.com.

“Last August, just about the time of the market collapsed, I started to realize I may need to look at other alternatives,” she explains. “I am not a risk taker, but the education gave me the courage to move out on my own.”

Zumback, from Northwestern University, also has rejiggered his goal. Instead of focusing on finding a hedge fund or some other financial services gig, he is now to looking at corporate finance jobs instead.

Surprisingly many MBAs don’t seem to regret their choice to go back to school, even though it’s been a dismal job market lately.

“It hard for me to say I regret it because of how great the experience has been,” says Zumbach. “Financially, it going to be tough for a while until I find a job, but in the long run it was still a good decision. I guess my timing could have been better.”

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