By the time Tim Hanlon was in his early 30s, his résumé looked like a case study that could have been written up in a young entrepreneur's handbook.
He says he was a student franchisee in university, helped a young technology company double its revenue, and turned a one-man lawn care business into a million-dollar venture. Eventually he moved on to a 35-employee Waterloo, Ont., business selling to retailers in the United States.
Despite these early career successes, Mr. Hanlon admits he wanted something else – a master of business administration (MBA).
"Even though I was getting great practical experience, I was missing some of that formalized business education: the systems, the thinking and certainly the finance part of it," Mr. Hanlon says. "I really did want to get the initials behind my name, which would add a level of credibility to the work I was doing."
He also hoped they would help him land a job in a larger, blue-chip corporation. While small startup companies were fun to build, he says the workdays were long and the money was short.
Today he's living his dream as senior manager of applied innovation and design at Royal Bank of Canada in Toronto. He's convinced that never would have happened without having graduated with an MBA from the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Not only did he score the coveted MBA acronym, the school gave him gave him something even better: invaluable career planning skills and advice.
The second part of the equation, career guidance, is crucial now as more schools offer MBA programs and the number of aspiring MBA candidates in Canada grows. According to the Graduate Management Admissions Council, the number of Canadian citizens taking its admission test has increased by 7 per cent from 2008 to 2012. Put simply, an MBA is no longer considered an exclusive club or the key guaranteed to unlock a corner-office job. Many graduates have to pound the pavement like everyone else.
"At one point an MBA would have given them a fast-track into certain companies and maybe a better paying job. But now it's only one factor that companies are looking at," says Peter Zukow, general manager of Lock Search Group, a recruiting company in Toronto.
Sharon Irwin-Foulon, executive director of career management and corporate recruiting for the Richard Ivey School of Business in London, Ont., agrees the landscape has changed in the past 10 years and that MBA graduates need to go the extra mile to get a job or launch a new career.
"It used to be good enough to get into a good MBA program, have a résumé, do some mock interviews and finish a cover letter. You're golden," she says.
But today, she says she's busy helping students understand how looking for employment is now much more about reputation management and cutting through the clutter that recruiters and hiring managers are bombarded with every day through LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and e-mail. The trick, she says, is understanding how to network effectively and sell yourself face-to-face.
"I can get excited about somebody online, but how many times have we stood in front of someone and said, 'Oh my God, this guy's a lunatic?'" she explains.
To help buff and polish the school's roughly 150 students (and their elevator pitches), they head to Toronto for Ivey's Get Connected networking event, where for three days they rub shoulders with alumni and companies looking to hire. Despite changes to job searching technology, landing a stellar job still seems to be about who you know.
Meanwhile, over at the Schulich School of Business, York University's business school in Toronto, Minoo Bhutani, director for the career development centre, says he helps his MBA students learn to network, too. The school plays host to Friday morning breakfasts – the best time to lure busy industry consultants – and alumni and experts share stories and offer advice.
Much of that advice explores the softer skills of business: how to influence superiors, communicate your point of view or balance work and life. In other workshops, students even learn the ins and outs of business etiquette.
"How do you network with a drink in one hand and business cards in the other?" Mr. Bhutani asks. "It's important to know which fork or knife goes with which course at dinner."
While these skills may seem pedestrian, he insists that they serve a real purpose when students look for work. Employers are looking for well-rounded, worldly employees. Tipping a glass of red wine down your shirt while fumbling for business cards is a surefire way to make an unforgettable impression. But not in a good way.
At the Goodman School of Business at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., there's an emphasis on soft skills, too, but in the form of co-op experience. Because the school's MBA candidates tend to be younger and often just a year out from their undergraduate degree, they still need work experience to round out their résumés and make an impression on employers.
Students are paid during their placements at organizations ranging from Hydro One to the Ontario Ministry of Finance, as well as large accounting firms and banks.
"Our graduates' co-op experience goes a long way toward their ultimate placement," says Don Cyr, interim dean.
Mr. Zukow agrees that co-op and summer internship programs are vital for landing a job after graduation, particularly for those students who moved from their undergraduate degree right into their MBA. Industry experience is key. Even more so in tougher economic times when staff have been cut, and organizational charts are lean and flat. Because these companies don't have time to train newbies, they're less likely to hire a newly minted grad who has more academic learning than real world know-how.
"There's definitely a bias towards people who can bring skills and experience to the table right away," he explains.
Mr. Hanlon says his summer work term at CanWest Global in 2006 as an MBA student at Rotman made all the difference when it came time to go after his job at RBC.
"Suddenly I was able to put a really recognizable brand on my résumé," he says.