By Justin O’Brien, MBA Director, Royal Holloway, University of London.
The sharp-suited MBA graduate with grand world-domination plans is a stereotype familiar to us all. He or she will probably head into a high pressured, well paid role in consulting or financial services. Fortunately, while a few do follow this path, things are changing. Graduates from Masters of Business Administration programmes (commonly known as MBAs) are now following a much broader range of careers, and the third sector in particular is benefiting.
The marketplace has of course changed significantly since the financial crisis began in 2008, and MBA-led business schools must share some of the blame for churning out graduates with a myopic vision of the business environment and an insufficient sense of appropriate ethics.
But changes over the past decade or two have increased the focus on corporate social responsibility, business philosophy and sustainability. But is this too little, too late for the social value of the MBA?
Postgraduate education can be counter cyclical, with severance packages and poor job prospects often encouraging people to finally take that MBA they had been considering for a while. However, the last three years have seen significant reductions in MBA applications, with a number of programmes “temporarily withdrawn”, pending a review. Perhaps we are witnessing an awkward phase in the sector, as supply adjusts to a new level of demand.
In this new context, non-government organisations (NGOs) and charities are increasingly important areas for MBA graduates to consider. Many organisational roles in the sector offer interesting challenges combined with good training and development. Pay is also on the increase, with senior management at major charities now routinely earning six figure salaries. Given the fulfilling nature of most work in the sector, it can offer satisfaction that earning a high salary for work you hate cannot compete with.
Third sector organisations are required to operate against changing expectations for operational, financial and ethical standards. With differences between private, public and third sector business models ever-diminishing, it is clear that MBA skills are transferable and in demand.
To give one example, a recent Royal Holloway MBA alumnus chose to take up an interim position as marketing director for a turtle conservation charity shortly after graduation. She reflected that the level of responsibility and scope to influence the organisation afforded to her was significantly greater than would have been granted in a for-profit company right after graduation.
With sluggish growth in large organisations and downsizing in the public sector, charities and NGOs now form a more significant part of the job market. Not only can they offer fast track opportunities for responsibility and personal growth, but they may also engender the money-can’t-buy feeling of making a difference in society.
The MBA is not, and never has been, a Henry Ford-style marketing proposition. Business schools use a variety of teaching methods, and the crucial peer learning context differs from school to school. Even the degrees themselves have changed over time.
Some argue that bending too far to satisfy candidate and employer demands may see a powerful business education dumbed down into a skills training service. After all education, not training, should be the core proposition of a university. Satisfying these demands may also underweight other stakeholders or see faddish approaches to themes or flavours of the moment. Functional or industry-oriented programmes have been around for a while but recently, in response to declining numbers, some UK universities have been putting forward conceptually labelled MBAs such as “One Planet” and “the circular economy”.
My impression is that the executive and full-time programmes have struggled, while the smaller distance learning format shows modest growth. But it is not the compensatory and explosive shift that the UK government would like to have seen. Rules introduced last year made post study visas harder to obtain, and this has had a significant, negative impact on the attractiveness of MBA programmes in the UK.
A more established and recognised path from business school to charitable career could easily be sustained. If the third sector believes the enhanced skills and experience of MBA graduates is worth offering competitive “complete” packages that can track (but not necessarily exceed) the wider market, then the numbers following this path will only grow.
MBA graduates are among the most talented, hard-working and highly skilled people out there. Let’s hope their qualification becomes more widely recognised and valued across all sectors of the economy.
Justin O’Brien does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.
(Image courtesy of flickr.com/photos/maysbusinessschool )
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