Back to school

With unemployment figures creeping up across the globe, employers are demanding more from candidates. Business schools have responded by creating industry-specific MBAs, writes Nash Riggins


In the 1960s, earning an undergraduate degree set aspiring workers apart from the pack. Today, it’s impossible to be a part of the pack without one. One third of all under-25s in the US now have an undergraduate degree. Yet according to a recent survey by Accenture, only 16 percent of those graduates have solid job prospects: 34 percent admit they’re willing to jump at the first job they get offered, no matter how overqualified they may be. They’re typically very overqualified.

MBA graduates find far greater success than their peers upon entering the job market

More often than not, it seems, university-educated workers are finding themselves in roles that require no college-level skills whatsoever, such as waiting tables and answering phones. Things are little better in the UK. Last year, the opening of a new Costa Coffee branch attracted 1,700 applications for just eight jobs – and positions that require specialised business knowledge are even more competitive. Because British firms are continuing to wrestle with the aftermath of recession, they’re hiring substantially less, and so every opening is a blessing. Consequently, aspiring professionals must do anything they can to differentiate themselves from the competition. For many, this means going back to school.

Starting from a stronger position
Regardless of the academic discipline to which students devoted their studies while earning an undergraduate degree, candidates with a general MBA programme under their belt have long proven attractive to businesses in virtually any industry. Courses help students attain a critical instinct on everything from organisational behaviour to accounting and project management.

The MBA grooms students for general management roles in which they’re able to tackle each and every issue a business is bound to encounter. Because of this invaluable knowledge, MBA graduates find far greater success than their peers upon entering the job market. According to the Education Resources Information Centre, MBA graduates typically earn starting salaries up to 50 percent higher than they were earning before graduating business school.

Over their next five years in employment, that salary will typically double. As if that wasn’t incentive enough, embarking on an MBA programme also provides students with unrivalled networking opportunities, as well as exposure to different industries and new business strategies.

With all these career benefits, it’s no wonder universities handed out 74 percent more MBAs last year than they did 10 years ago. Unfortunately, this rampant increase in the number of workers lugging around an MBA has taken many graduates back to square one: it’s still near impossible to differentiate from the crowd. Fortunately, business schools are starting to respond to the problem.

It’s best to focus
The last few years have seen many business schools completely transformed by their introduction of specific MBA degrees. Similar to general MBAs, business schools are using specialised courses to target those who already have a certain level of experience within a given industry, but want to gain further insight into the challenges that sector faces. Business is changing, and incoming professionals need to know how they must adapt in order to succeed.

Without doubt, the specialisations on offer are beginning to turn the heads of employers. For example, at Henley Business School in Reading, the world’s first music industry-specific MBA is already showing results. John Martinez, a 46-year-old music producer, wanted to learn more about the music industry after witnessing major changes in the sector over recent years.

Henley’s brand-new MBA programme, started by music executive Helen Gammons, provided Martinez with the means to gain an all-encompassing (but virtually unprecedented) education on how to monetise digital music.

“I wouldn’t have considered an MBA if the focus wasn’t on the music industry,” he says. “There are other universities that offer certificates and degrees in music business but none of them have the added value and credibility that a top–flight MBA can provide.” By swimming against the current, Martinez was plucked right out of business school by US rapper and five-time Grammy winner Malik Yusef to help him start a brand-new music label.

Following on
Other business schools have followed Henley’s example. At NYU, the Stern School of Business recently launched the world’s first fashion MBA. The partnership with the Council of Fashion Designers of America sees business students paired with fashion designers to consult on business strategy. Similar to Henley’s music programme, Stern’s fashion MBA is small: its most recent programme was composed of just 10
business students.

Less eccentric – but equally distinct – specialist MBA courses are popping up everywhere: Liverpool University now has a course in ethical business, London School of Business offers specialisations in carbon management, and students at Brunel can earn an MBA in aviation management. Although the rise of specialised MBAs has sparked a gold rush among business schools, it’s unlikely the familiar problem of an overpopulated talent pool will materialise; after all, the severe specialisation of each course ensures each graduate leaves school with a unique business education.

“Specialist MBAs can provide students with the relevant management skills to deal with issues at a deeper level,” says Jane Delbene, Marketing Director at the Graduate Management Admission Council. “They also give employers a clear indication that the candidate has the ability and the interest to help steer their organisation in the right direction.”

The great migration
Many MBAs aren’t young recent graduates, but long-time business veterans trying to wrap their heads around the ways in which their industries are changing. Nowhere is the need to evolve greater than within the media industry. As digitalisation binds together traditionally standalone industries like print and broadcast media, newspaper editors, filmmakers and book publishers are among those headed back to school to take advantage of new, industry-specific business degrees.

While researching the ins and outs of their own business strategy, mature MBA students are also exposed to strategies implemented in starkly different industries that could be applied elsewhere. At a time when newspapers are facing pressure to produce original video content and media distributors like Netflix are starting to produce their own programming, learning how to manage these media crossovers is essential for today’s media executives. Finite MBA focuses are teaching business veterans how to keep up.
“The MBA gives you a broad view of industries that might have nothing to do with you,” says Professor Sandra Sieber, of Barcelona’s IESE business school. “So you might see new sources of competitive advantage by studying an industry that you otherwise wouldn’t have thought about.”

An improving market
This new era of MBA specialisation is forcing substantial increases in industry migration. In fact, studies indicate 64 percent of business students are entering their MBA programme with the intent to cross over into a completely different industry. Three years ago, when less specialised degrees were on offer, this figure was more than 10 percent lower.

Not only do these migration figures make a convincing argument for the validity of engaging in a specialised business degree, they also suggest the overall job market is improving. After all, it’s safe to say market confidence must be improving to some degree if companies are willing to take on a new management-hire regardless of direct industry experience. With any luck, employment figures will rise with this increasing level of confidence.

Students still find great value in traditional, generalised MBAs – especially more experienced professionals who have already found their niche, but are looking to branch into general management – but it can’t be ignored that specialised MBAs are transforming the jobs market from the inside out.

Graduates of these programmes are helping to share and transfer business strategies across diverse industries, and general employment figures are improving as new hires improve the confidence and performance levels of companies. Not only are job applicants able to stand apart from the crowd, they’re also offering businesses much-needed skills to help guide established industries through uncharted waters.