Last week, Poets&Quants reported that the University of Southern California had outpaced all other U.S. schools in applications to the full-time MBA program in 2020. Now we see that in a summer of coronavirus and economic uncertainty, the Marshall School of Business also had a strong year for MBA outcomes, while not entirely dodging the forces arrayed against graduate business education.
The Marshall School released its MBA Class of 2020 employment report this week, and it shows higher overall MBA salaries, both average and median. But the telltale signs of a difficult environment are impossible to miss. Employment rates at both graduation and three months later are about five percentage points lower. Bonuses, both average and median, are down, and the range of salaries is tighter, with both a lower low end and lower high end. Average salaries in major industries, such as finance and media/entertainment, also are down year-to-year. And the percentage of the class that returned to a previous employer shot up five-fold to 10% of the class from a mere 2% a year earlier.
Mark Brostoff, assistant dean and director of Graduate Career Services at USC Marshall, says employment tracked along mostly normal lines in the spring and early summer. The bigger problem, he says, was in the area of internships for rising second-years.
“One of the main markers I looked at is, what was going to be our at-graduation employment rate, and it was 74% and it was very close to what 2019 was,” Brostoff says. “So there were no indications to me that the Class of 2020 was going to have a rough time. It was definitely an adjustment, don’t get me wrong. But the markers that I look at, in terms of trending out where I think we’re going to be, didn’t give me any pause — not in the same way that internships gave me pause.”
Last year, in fact, the employment rate at commencement for Marshall MBA grads was 78.8%, roughly five percentage points higher. It rose to 95.2% three months later. This year the three-month rate fell to 91%, a difference of only four points, not all that consequential given the pandemic-induced recession.
SALARIES CLIMB BUT BONUSES FAIL TO FOLLOW
Overall, the Marshall School’s average salary for 221 Class of 2020 MBAs climbed year-over-year, to $132,844 from $127,495, as did its median salary, to $130K from $125K. “I knew we were tracking well,” Brostoff tells P&Q. “We were tracking exactly the way that Marshall typically tracks, because we have a lot of just-in-time hires in the 90-day post-graduation period because of our location, because of technology adding jobs after traditional recruiting, and media/entertainment typically doesn’t happen until later in the spring and early summer.”
But in a pair of indications that many MBAs were willing to take worse deals to secure jobs, sign-on bonuses fell, and the salary range was tighter. Median bonuses dropped from $32,500 to $30,000, and average bonuses from $37,925 to $28,673, the latter a more than 24% decline. Meanwhile, the overall salary range constricted from $87K-$230K in 2019 to $85K-$170K this year.
Some industries saw noteworthy drop-offs, too. While dropping to just 8% of the class, Marshall MBAs who went into finance saw their average salaries decline more than $5,500, or almost 4%, to $138,000. Biotech/pharma/healthcare MBAs saw their average salary dip about 2%, and media/entertainment, tech, and CPG were basically flat. Only two industries saw significant salary gains: consulting, the top industry with 28% of Marshall grads, grew 9.5% to more than $150K; and real estate (4%) grew 6.7% to over $128K.
“For full-time employment, the only trend that I saw early in April was some hesitancy with start dates,” Brostoff says. “We did not see a great number of offers being rescinded. That was really good news — the number of rescinded offers was very low, in fact almost negligible. And if we did have a rescinded offer, the good news was the student was somewhat positioned to follow up in other areas. So anyone who was affected by rescinded offers ended up finding alternative of full-time work experience. So that was really good.”
CALLING ON EXPERIENCE FROM A PAST CRISIS
A bigger concern than full-time jobs was internships for rising second-year MBA students.
“We saw some quick action, unfortunately, with internships when everyone was adjusting to what this whole work from home experience was going to be like,” Brostoff says. “But then what was really interesting is other opportunities that came through.
“I think that companies were right to not have any knee-jerk reactions. The reason a lot of them decided to cancel internships is they felt that it’s also as much as a experiential learning opportunity, but more importantly, it’s a time for them to sell the company, in the hope that they would be able to convert to a full-time offer. And they felt that those social interactions — the office parties, the softball games, the whole interpersonal relationship that you develop with an intern over a summer — could not be replicated during a work-from-home, an online, or virtual internship.
“And I think a lot of them decided that since we can’t give them everything, that we would simply not have an internship. There were definitely two distinct dynamics in April and May, depending on what road students were going down. Clearly, it was not a one-bucket-fits-all, if you will, outcome.”
Seeing what was happening, Brostoff and his team fell back on a strategy from a prior crisis.
“Basically I took a strategy out of my playbook during the financial crisis in ’09 and ’10,” he says. “In mid-March, immediately, when we realized that this was not going to be a short-term virtual work from home, but we were in for a long haul — as soon as I saw two or three companies completely canceled their internships, we began to reach out to the Trojan network. The dean reached out, I reached out, the alumni development folks reached out and we started to identify really high-level, MBA-level projects, or what I call summer work experience. The clubs did the same.
“In our backyard, for example, here in L.A., the entertainment industry was obviously hit pretty hard for on-site work because the studios were all closed, but work had to be done. It was just that they were not filming. There were no studios open. So we began to identify these projects. Some had stipends, some were paid, and some were unpaid. But as I talked with recruiters in April about whether it would have a negative impact if the student had on their resume, not a traditional internship — one of those 12-week internships for X number of dollars — a meaningful summer experience instead. And 100% of them said that would be not only a good thing but a very impressive thing. It would show that your Marshall students did not sit back and simply say, ‘Oh, look what COVID-19 did for me. Boohoo, I don’t have a summer internship.'”
Additional internships were arranged through USC’s Greif Center for Entrepreneurial Studies, Brostoff says.
“We had great numbers from startups that offered stipends to our students here in the L.A. area,” he says. “It was amazing to see within a couple of weeks, almost 20 startups come up and say, ‘Hey, we never thought we could get an MBA, or even a graduate student, for summer for only a few thousand bucks. But, wow, we’ve got some great, great opportunities here.’
“So at the end of the day, I think Marshall students had really good, meaningful, internships. I think what we did as an institution focused on the long-term success of our students, not simply filling a gap of the summer.”
A MAJOR JUMP IN TECH JOBS
One of the most noteworthy changes between the 2019 and 2020 MBA employment picture at USC: the rise of tech. Already at 21% of graduating MBAs last year, tech jobs this year jumped to 27%, second only to consulting. Brostoff says part of the reason was tech companies’ ability to easily and naturally onboard new hires remotely during the pandemic.
“They were really fast to the work-at-home,” he says. “Some firms in the CPG world, and the financial services world, took a little bit of a hit — those numbers are a little less than they were. Some of them froze hiring or delayed hiring. We did have a couple of firms that, for example, delayed start dates and gave the student the option and understanding that if you wanted to reopen your search, they kind of allowed them to do that. That was something you don’t normally see ever. The companies also respected that if you’re going to hire students for a June start date, and now you tell them it won’t be until December, well … Firms were really good at working in being very transparent with students with that.
“Also, as Poets&Quants has reported, we have really led the charge of using our Trojan network up and down the West Coast, from Seattle to Silicon Valley to Silicon Beach. So I think it was not overly a surprise. In fact, I would say technology is going to hover around with consulting for a while. It always changes every few years, but that’s what I think we’re going to experience here: some long-term changes coming out of this.”
But he also expects a financial services bounce-back.
“In financial services, we had a strong financial services intern outcome, and I’m expecting that in 2021 we may see some more full-time out of financial services,” Brostoff says.