MBAS ARE HOT AGAIN--AND THEY KNOW IT CORPORATIONS, LOOKING TO REBUILD THEIR MANAGEMENT TEAMS, ARE FEVERISHLY PURSUING TOP BUSINESS SCHOOL GRADS. SO FRESHLY MINTED GENIUSES ARE NOW DEMANDING BIG SIX-FIGURE SALARIES AND A LONG LIST OF PERKS.
By SHELLY BRANCH

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Sean McDuffy, 29, is a corporate recruiter's dream. As the executive vice president of Wharton's student council, he's a proven leader. And the fact that he started a food business straight out of college suggests that he's a creative risk taker too. Such traits, combined with the luster of a summer internship at McKinsey & Co., help explain how this athletic MBA student has scored four enviable job offers. But only one lucky company, Goldman Sachs, will get him. The other three suitors, consulting and investment banking firms, will have to shop their six-figure offers elsewhere. "This is amazing, to feel so wanted," says McDuffy. "It's hard not to feel like a kid in a candy store."

At top B-schools these days, McDuffy's luxurious lot is the rule, not the exception. "This is definitely a students' market," confirms Andrew Adams, director of career placement at Wharton. "Companies are tripping over themselves to get on our schedule." Though hardly a return to the MBA mania of the 1980s, this recruiting season--like last year's--is remarkably strong compared with the early Nineties. In some cases schools are seeing jumps of 40% or more in recruitment activity.

Companies are also opening their wallets wide. Top students at the more prestigious schools can command average base starting salaries in the $75,000 to $150,000 range. Really hot properties like McDuffy can also expect to be offered signing bonuses and tuition reimbursements. Aggressive players like Goldman Sachs have helped keep the bidding competitive; this year the firm raised average offers to B-school students by $20,000, to $85,000. Wall Street rivals were forced to follow.

According to Maury Hanigan, a New York City consultant who advises companies on B-school issues, the uptick in recruiting was inevitable. "A lot of corporations lost their bench strength when they downsized for a weak economy in the early Nineties," she says. "Then along came 1994--a gangbuster year--and companies lacked the managers to go after new business."

With so many employers pursuing them, today's turbo-MBAs can pick and choose. They want more than a big-brand job. They crave instant recognition and endless learning curves too. "I do want to develop and advance quickly," explains Mark Tatum, a Harvard first-year student who is staking out a job in sports marketing. "I'm looking for an opportunity where I can directly impact the direction of an organization. Something more strategic, vs. administrative."

In spite of all the hype about "entrepreneurship" and the rewards of working for small firms, B-school students are still a pretty risk-averse bunch. Given their druthers, for instance, MBA students prefer working for a prestigious-name firm: Coke over Amalgamated Zipper. But there's an even bigger sign that this group lacks real daring--the growing popularity of consulting firms.

This year that particular discipline will claim roughly one in three grads at top-rated schools. Students love consulting because it allows them "to defer the inevitable," says Karen Dowd, a human resources consultant with Brecker & Merryman in New York City. And academics agree: By choosing a McKinsey or an A.T. Kearney, students get to put off committing to a specific industry. They can hedge their bets while gaining contacts and job leads. Indeed, in a new, exclusive survey of 1,792 MBA students at 20 top business schools by the Stockholm-based consulting firm Universum, McKinsey & Co. turns up as the most "ideal" place to work, followed by Boston Consulting Group and Goldman Sachs (see box).

Sanjay Kapoor, an MBA candidate at Northwestern's Kellogg school, describes the allure of the consulting option. He's currently juggling five job offers: four in marketing and one in consulting, the field he left to pursue his degree. Kapoor speaks fondly of his "perfect" summer marketing gig with Pepsi-Cola, where he helped dream up fruity drinks. And he's leaning toward Clorox, which has offered him a chance to work on its cat litter team. Though committed to marketing--and its considerably lower pay--Kapoor is still troubled by the thought of abandoning the money and status of big-league consulting. "Basically," he says, "I'm giving up a BMW Z-3."

MBAs talk incessantly about finding the right fit. And by the time they show up at corporate headquarters for a round of 15 interviews, chances are they'll glean more about their interrogators than vice versa. They take thorough mental notes about the managers and other employees they meet. Of particular interest are the clothes interviewers wear (Gap vs. Armani), their manner (warm vs. brusque), their weekend habits (squash vs. church)--even their pets. According to Universum's survey, students said that finding colleagues they would "enjoy socializing with" was as important as "being able to continuously learn."

University of North Carolina MBA candidate Kisha Green, who recently accepted a consulting offer from A.T. Kearney, confirms that such intangibles were an important part of her decision-making process. During each interview, "I looked for consistencies," she says. "I thought, 'Do these people all value a collegial work environment? And do I feel comfortable with them?' Let's face it, I may be traveling with these people four days out of every week."

Grads today are also putting a lot of emphasis on broad work and life issues--perhaps because they're an increasingly mature bunch. In 1996 the typical B-school graduate was 28, or three years older than the class of 1987. "I think about settling down and starting a family," says Wharton's Sean McDuffy, who based his decision to accept Goldman Sachs at least in part on such concerns. As a trader at the firm, he'll put in roughly 50 to 60 hours--or about ten to 20 hours less than he'd log as a consultant. Adds Stephen Shoff, a former journalist also at Wharton: "Sure, I'd like to make a lot of cash, but I can't believe how important the whole work-life balance is to me now that I'm approaching 30."

Family-friendly companies like Merck, which offers low-cost day-care services, get extra notice from students. In fact, the company's business school offers are up 25% over last year. "Firms know they have to adjust," says Tom Fernandez, assistant dean at Columbia's B-school. "We've even heard of small consulting firms' limiting their travel days."

From the company point of view, all this coddling of MBA candidates may not always make a lot of sense. For one thing, MBA candidates are often short on meaningful experience and will require seasoning before they are ready to take on significant corporate responsibilities. Sums up consultant Maury Hanigan: "These students have the mental horsepower to do very complex jobs, yet they don't know enough about how to deal with a business's suppliers and customers."

Some corporate managers also grouse that MBAs have overambitious short-term career goals. "At Intel people move in and out of different jobs and responsibilities quite frequently, so of course we like people who find change exciting," says Marc Jedel, a marketing manager at Intel. "But it is unrealistic to think that you can work here for three to four years and become a general manager of a division."

Still, MBAs at top schools do constitute a valuable talent pool that few companies with strong growth ambitions can afford to ignore. So recruiters are refining their techniques. One current favorite: treating favored recruits like customers. Says consultant Karen Dowd: "Companies win over students by gearing the job--or at least the job description--to suit their needs."

Chances are that will involve rethinking the company's campus pitch. There was a time when companies came calling with a video, some booze, and a gaggle of human resources people. Today that simply won't cut it on campuses where students are deluged by recruiters. Smarter companies send front-line managers--usually in teams, according to functional area--to represent the company. The higher up, the better. "Students pay attention to how companies manage their on-campus recruiting," says Cheryl Dowdall, director of career services at the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler business school. "They expect timeliness, responsiveness, even feedback."

It helps to let the candidates do the talking too. Students love to flaunt their knowledge and work experience, which helps explain why more schools are encouraging behavioral interviews--the sort of exchange where students are prompted to talk about specific problems and how they might handle them.

For most companies, the real key to attracting top-drawer students is creating the proper "buzz"--a positive corporate aura that convinces students that your enterprise is cutting-edge. To figure out which company is hot and which is not, students use campus intranets and various sites on the Internet. One site, the Wet Feet Press, is particularly popular among MBA students. Founded by two Stanford MBAs in 1995, the service offers underground reports on 35 of the most prestigious companies. Tucked into their yellow binders are tips like "you'll work until you pass out" (McKinsey) and "there's no such thing as a concrete job description" (Nike).

Whatever tactics recruiters employ these days, they will meet students who can afford to be picky--and sometimes even contemptuous of companies that don't measure up. One story now making the rounds among corporate recruiters: A top Kellogg student didn't like the fact that a recruiter kept glancing at a clock during an interview. So the student jumped up from his seat, ripped the clock from the wall, and dumped it on the table. A students' market indeed.