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Updated: March 10, 2020

With MBA invitational, UConn aims to keep talent in the Northeast

HBJ Photo | Matt Pilon TsuHan Lei, 34, an MBA student at Baruch College in New York, is one of the dozens of out-of-state students who were drawn to a recent career fair hosted by UConn School of Business at its downtown Hartford campus.

On a recent weekday afternoon in February, graduate students from UConn’s business school met with nearly a dozen major employers at the college’s downtown Hartford campus, but there was something unusual about this career fair.

Alongside the 50 or so University of Connecticut students milling about the conference room in Constitution Plaza were an additional 60-plus pupils, invited by UConn, hailing from competing MBA programs at colleges spanning from New York City to Boston, including Connecticut’s own Yale University.

In the competitive world of MBA programs, where schools are vying for every student at a time when enrollment for advanced business degrees is on the decline, it may seem odd for UConn to invite other schools to its own job fair.

The reality, explained Meg Warren, UConn business school’s director of engagement and outreach, is that most MBA programs are too small to draw employer interest in face-to-face events with their students. Combining forces with peer schools — even ones viewed as competitors — resulted in more companies participating in the newly named Northeast MBA Invitational, providing value to employers and students alike.

Among the companies that showed up were Amazon, Cigna, CVS Health, Travelers, Virtus Investment Partners and Webster Bank.

“Maybe they won’t hire a UConn MBA the first time around, but maybe they’ll come back again next year and hire one,” Warren said. “Do I want UConn MBAs to get hired? Of course I do, but the really important thing is to keep talent here [in the Northeast].”

Lucy Gilson, associate dean of faculty and outreach at UConn’s business school, had a similar outlook about the event, which could move around to different host schools in the years ahead.

“It is competitive … but I’m confident our students can match up with students from around the country,” Gilson said. “If they can’t, we have a bigger problem.”

She said MBA programs collaborate more than one might think, hosting case competitions and other events that draw teams of students from other schools.

Photo | Contributed
Mark Gelinas, vice president of talent management for Virtus Investment Partners, said a university inviting competing programs to a career fair is unusual, but as an employer, he liked the results.

However, while there are large MBA events hosted by national associations in Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere — as well as more exclusive Ivy League events in places like New York City — UConn’s collaborative career fair is unusual in Connecticut and New England, according to Mark Gelinas, one of the event’s employer participants.

As vice president of talent management for Hartford-based investment manager Virtus, and a previous corporate college recruiter for The Hartford and PwC, Gelinas has a solid handle on recruiting events for MBAs and other types of business students.

“I think that model is pretty unique around here,” Gelinas said. “And from an employer standpoint, I think it’s a great idea.”

It comes down to being as efficient as possible with his time.

“For me to not have to go to half-a-dozen schools and to have access to students from multiple schools, from a logistics standpoint, is great,” he said.

Craving face time

A bigger student pool is good for hiring managers, but at the same time, students who traveled to UConn’s event said its relatively small size was a major draw.

Abhishek Chittur, 27, an MBA student at Baruch College in New York, said he’s attended a large business career event in New York City, where there were an estimated 100 employers.

“You just kind of feel lost and confused by the end,” Chittur said of the larger event. “You didn’t have time to forge meaningful relationships with people.”

By contrast, UConn’s event was an intimate setting.

“I felt [employers] were more willing to share their insights and engage with me on a human level,” he said.

Supril Shah is an MBA student at UMass Amherst. He, too, has some experience at a larger, more general career fair, and said he much preferred the UConn model.

“One recruiter might talk to a few hundred people in a day,” at a larger event, Shah, 26, said, “so it’s kind of hard to remember them.”

“This is smaller-scale,” he added. “It gets me more exposure to employers.”

Immigration headwinds

UConn’s career fair came as MBA programs across the country are currently facing several headwinds. As is typical during good economic times, which the U.S. has been in for nearly a decade, schools have a harder time attracting students, something UConn and other Connecticut colleges are facing.

An immigration crackdown by the Trump administration over the past four years has been another challenge for MBA programs, which rely heavily on international pupils. At UConn, for example, more than 50% of its full-time MBA students are from outside the U.S.

But the Trump administration’s tightening of certain worker-visa rules and broader anti-immigrant sentiments have made it more difficult for foreign students to remain in the U.S. after graduation and discouraged others from applying to programs here.

A 2019 study by business school consultancy CarringtonCrisp found that only half of international business school applicants considered U.S. schools, down from 62% in 2018 and 67% in 2017. In October, the Wall Street Journal reported that applications to U.S. MBA programs have fallen for five years in a row, in part due to immigration policies and U.S.-China tensions.

Meanwhile, employers have shown less interest in hiring international MBA students in recent years, according to surveys by the MBA Career Services & Employer Alliance.

Shah, who hails from India, was one of many international students attending the UConn event last month. He said concerns about being able to get employer sponsorship for a more permanent work visa after graduation linger in his and his fellow international students’ minds.

“It’s getting harder for international students,” he said.

In response, Shah said colleges are pushing their MBA students to seek connections with job recruiters as much as possible, so they can find a company willing to sponsor a federal work visa application.

“It’s more of a connection,” he said. “You can explain your situation better.”

TsuHuan Lei, 34, is another Baruch MBA student. He hails from Taiwan, where he managed two hardware retail stores.

Lei, who taught himself English after graduating high school by watching television shows, has seen the brick-and-mortar model continue to struggle against online competition, just like stores here in the U.S., so he decided to expand his horizons with an MBA.

At UConn, he was interested in finding an internship, perhaps at Amazon or CVS.

“We’ll see, if I get a good opportunity, I might try to work here [in the U.S.],” Lei said.

He’s well aware that it could be a challenge to land a work visa after he graduates. Officials at schools he applied to warned him about the situation, he said.

But there are always other options. Lei recalled something mentioned during a recent immigration workshop he attended in New York: “Don’t worry, if you don’t get to stay in the states, Canada is always open.”

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