'It has been a costly journey but we did this to get a competitive edge'


It’s the premium business degree, once the key to a better job and it took off in the good years when employers were happy to fund expensive MBAs for their high flying executives. LOUISE HOLDENtalks to one student who still feels the time and expense is still worthwhile

These days you expect people to hold on to what they have and pray for things to get better. However, the demand for MBA programmes is on the rise. Job losses, sectoral decline and uncertainty about the future have prompted former engineers, bankers, marketers and lawyers to invest the redundancy money or the family fortune on a roll of the academic dice.

Mary O’Brien from Tullamore, who is nearing the end of the MBA programme in the UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School, has never shied away from a career gamble. She threw in a permanent job as a teacher for a punt on accountancy. It wasn’t as risky as it seemed.

“I put a lot of time into the process. I tested myself to see where my aptitudes really lay. I was honest about my abilities and ambitions. I knew teaching was not for me, even though the job was there and it was not the best time to leave it.” That was back in the early 90s and Mary qualified as an accountant just as the economy began to go into overdrive. There was a chronic shortage of accountants, especially those with her specialisation in corporate taxation. She spent time in three out of the four top accounting consultancies, before taking on the big job, in taxation policy and research at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

“It was all very promising,” says Mary. “I was travelling to Europe to conferences on common tax policy in the EU. I was dealing with the Revenue Commissioners at the top level. I was getting fantastic experience.” However, Mary could see clouds on the horizon. “A huge amount of people lost jobs in the tax area in the last two years. I was becoming so specialised, and I was concerned about where the jobs might be in the near future. I was also getting itchy feet.” She knew that leaving a permanent job to go back to college in the teeth of a recession was high risk behaviour. “I have a positive belief that something will come out of this. It will open doors for me.” Mary is nearing the end of what she describes as an “intense and exhilarating” year on the MBA programme at UCD’s Smurfit School of Business. “I wanted a broader view of business and that is exactly what I got. Human resources, marketing strategy, decision making, negotiation dynamics, cross cultural studies; leaving here, there will be no aspect of business that I do not have at least an awareness of.”

As part of the programme she travelled to China to met business people of all backgrounds there, and worked in an advisory capacity with the National Folklore Collection in UCD. Working with 40 other MBA students on case studies and projects of various sorts, she learned about sectors previously beyond her ken.

However, six weeks from close of play, the future is far from certain for any of them. There are people on the course who came to the MBA after losing jobs, she admits, and they will face a tight market in July. Some are already talking of going abroad, but Mary is determined to stick it out in Ireland. She hopes to take advantage of the shifting sands.

“Tax policy and research is not high on the national agenda at the moment. I have been examining alternative career options in detail with my careers manager here in Smurfit, and I have identified an area, ‘interim management’ which appeals to me at the moment,” she says.

Interim managers step in to companies in need of a leader for a particular project over a fixed term. These guns-for-hire have been in demand in the UK for some years. The model has only come into play in the Ireland since the recession, now that companies are reluctant to take on new, permanent executives in such an uncertain period. She admits it will be a competitive area with so many experienced people looking for work.

“I want to stay in Ireland, even if it takes a while to get work here,” she says.

Mary has a history of ignoring the macroeconomic context of her decisions, but she says that the MBA has made her sensitive to commercial realities. “There are MBA students from engineering and financial services backgrounds that have lost jobs. We are not in a bubble here.”

One of the big shifts in MBA behaviour is financing. In the good years, employers were prepared to help executives gain the qualification and bring their learning back to the fold. Now, MBAs are increasingly paying their own way.

In Mary’s case, her performance on the GMAT exams secured her a scholarship that halved her Smurfit fees. With a degree in science, years of teaching maths and physics and her accounting experience under her belt, she had the edge on an exam that tests mathematical ability, among other competencies.

“I have taken a very unusual route to the MBA, so there’s never been an obvious career structure for me,” she says. There aren’t many former teachers on the MBA programme so it’s hard to predict where Mary’s expensive adventure might take her.

However, with certainty in short supply, she’s no better or worse off than any of her peers.

“I thought the class would be full of very competitive people, anxious about their prospects,” she says. “The opposite is the case. I have found a very confident and supportive group of people looking forward to the opportunities that their studies will offer. You have to be confident. Recessions don’t last forever. It has been a costly journey but we did this to get a competitive edge.”

Today’s MBA’s: Mostly male and increasingly paying their own way

The typical MBA student in 2010 is male, 30 years old, has worked for eight years and comes from a marketing, engineering or finance background. Around half of all MBA students in Irish business schools come from overseas.

Women are still in a minority on MBA programmes, accounting for between 20 and 30 per cent of participants. The intense workload and wall-to-wall timetabling makes the full time MBA a difficult option for women in the age group.

It is estimated that there are now 10,000 people carrying an MBA qualification in Ireland, with a couple of hundred new graduates each year coming from 15 business colleges island-wide.

“There are certainly unemployed MBAs out there at the moment, but it’s hard to get concrete information about them, because it’s an embarrassing admission to make,” says Liam Fennelly, president of the MBA Association of Ireland. “Many more are self employed or in consultancy, and have a considerably reduced workload.”

Nonetheless, demand for the programme remains strong; Smurfit reported a 40 per cent increase in demand this year. Growing numbers of businesspeople are funding their own MBA as companies retreat from executive investment. “We still recommend the MBA as an option,” says Fennelly. “It’s never hindered anybody.”