George Robson
New goals: former England rugby player George Robson used his time on an EMBA programme to assess prospects in the sports industry © Tom Pilston for the FT

Unemployment has scarred economies around the world this year and while senior executives enjoy a more privileged position than most, it is likely to be a tough year for those seeking new roles.

The difficult nature of the jobs market is underlined by the 2020 MBA graduate employment report published in September by the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the business school entrance exam administrator. The report, which focuses on full-time MBAs, found a sharp drop in hiring intentions among the biggest recruiters, although there are expectations of a subsequent rebound.

But in one of the worst employment markets in many years, some business graduates have significant advantages. Executive MBA participants tend to be older, more senior and hold down full-time jobs while studying, so are not necessarily in a rush to find a new role immediately after graduation, according to Vicki Lambiri, associate director of career management and counselling at Iese in Barcelona.

“For EMBA students, it is often a question of timing, and that could be as far away as two years after graduation,” Lambiri says. “It is tough enough to manage studying part-time [for an EMBA] with working full-time. Job searching is a job in itself.”

This is different to students on full-time MBA courses, who take career breaks to study. “The urgency is different. Full-time MBAs are obsessed with job searches, which often begin before they start on campus,” Lambiri says.

One 2020 EMBA graduate who has been able to make a career switch this year in spite of the pandemic is George Robson, a former England and Harlequins rugby union player. He had started a second career outside professional sport, as European director of operations and business development at MusclePharm, a nutritional supplements company, when he began the EMBA programme at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School.

Robson graduated this summer, but rather than return to his old job or a role in the sports industry, he switched sectors and careers, securing a role as business development manager at Gartner, a technology research and advisory business.

“This wasn’t the year to move back into rugby,” he says, given how most sports were stopped by coronavirus. “I thought the EMBA would be a great way to learn about business and make a transition. I started to become interested in the technology sector and as Covid-19 struck, it became obvious that everybody is going to have to think digitally.”

Robson credits one of the industry advisers Oxford Saïd put him in touch with for convincing him he needed to switch to tech. “The recruiter who took me through the process was fantastic. He talked me through the culture of Gartner. It was a competitive place, but on top of that it was about the company wanting people who were lifelong learners. All that resonated with me,” he says. “I would never say never about going back into rugby, but the EMBA has changed my way of thinking about my career.”

While jobs advice and interview coaching is arguably not so pressing for EMBA students, schools recognise that their careers support is a key consideration for many students.

Careers advice is a core part of the EMBA curriculum at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. This includes a career advancement course, in which students map out a “learning agenda”, with steps to reach the ideal job based on their personal strengths and career aspirations. There is a networking strategy to support this by identifying key people who can help participants towards a particular role.

They then complete an experiential learning course in which they practise interview techniques with actors playing recruiters. Feedback sessions are led by executive coaches and supplemented by classmates’ observations.

Connie Dunlop, Darden’s executive director for professional advancement, says the EMBA class receives even more attention than other postgraduate business students because they have a lot more going on in their lives, juggling study and work. “These students are so busy with all these aspects of their lives that it is difficult for them to show up and present themselves well in job interviews,” she says. “We think it is particularly important for them to know how to tell their stories.”

Michael Desiderio, executive director at Embac, the Executive MBA Council, is bullish about the job prospects for EMBA graduates, even during the economic turmoil created by the pandemic. He advises graduates to think about the skills they have obtained in management as a key differentiator in the market. “I won’t say they are immune from headcount cuts, but certainly during times of crises leaders are needed even more, not less,” he says.

“I think the business sector in which an EMBA student works will impact their view on this. For example, if you’re in the retail sector, perhaps the pandemic is the final motivator needed to push an exit out of your current sector and into a new one. If you work for a thriving sector, it may in fact be the perfect time to do everything possible to give yourself an advantage of moving up internally.”

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