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Business students shun Wall Street for Main Street

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This year, Boise Cascade had hoped to interview 16 second-year students, or two schedules of eight interviews, says Jaye B. Pierce, human resources administrator. ``We got a call from Harvard's placement office asking us to add two more schedules because there was such interest in the company,'' she says. ``So we added two more schedules.''

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Then two weeks ago, she got another call. Harvard wanted a fifth schedule. ``The stock market crash has enlightened MBAs that there are other things to consider than just salaries,'' she says. ``Things like opportunities for advancement and security.''

Bidding for choice interviews

That ``enlightenment'' can be quantified in a way. Many schools have an auction system for allocating interviews among students. At Virginia's Darden school, each second-year student gets 2,500 points; he or she then bids points to get on interview schedules. The more attractive the company, the greater the competition and the higher the bids.

Last year, the high scorers were the investment banks, with Goldman Sachs getting a 1,500 bid and Shearson Lehman Brothers getting a 900-point bid, according to Karen Dowd, Darden's director of placement. This year, the investment banks are getting top bids in the 200s.

Meanwhile, corporate Main Street is riding high. The interview waiting lists are long, and bids are high at places like McKinsey & Co. (with an 850-point bid), Digital Equipment Corporation (750), real estate company Spaulding & Slye (501), Marriott, Quaker Oats, and AT&T (all with 500-point bids).

`Trade schools for yuppies'

The shift in interest is a happy event for business schools, says Charles Hickman at the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. The fact that so many students were going to Wall Street ``made business schools very uncomfortable. They had gotten the reputation for being trade schools for greedy yuppies,'' he says.

If the interest lasts, it could boost American industrial competitiveness, says Samuel Hayes, a professor at Harvard Business School. ``To the extent that this shifts the spotlight to manufacturing and the industrial sector,'' good managers from the top schools ``could generate the energy and excitement needed to meet the Japanese competition,'' he says. He notes, however, that the ``spillover of excitement'' might not show up on the bottom line ``for another decade.''

Others are skeptical about the sudden lack of interest in Wall Street. ``I'm not sure it's real,'' says Vladimir Pucik, a professor at the University of Michigan.

Some securities firms - notably, E.F. Hutton, which was recently bought by Shearson Lehman Brothers and is laying off 6,000 employees - have pulled back their recruiting efforts. Most, however, want to retain their presence on campus, and say they will hire as many grads this year as last.

The theory among students is that Wall Street is just cleaning house at the most cost-effective level: the experienced, highly paid employees. The Street still needs young ``spear carriers,'' to do the legwork and number crunching.

``The hot air is that managing directors are there till 10 or 11 every night,'' says Sean Mullin, who worked at Merrill Lynch Capital Markets last summer. ``But it's the associates who put in 100-hour weeks.''

Others aren't so sanguine about new graduates' opportunities on the Street. ``They'll be competing with experienced people for those spots,'' notes Victor Lindquist, a Northwestern University dean, who conducts an annual survey of business employers.

And more distressing to students, new graduates will be competing with one another. ``People who had expectations to interview at investment banks suddenly shifted to fields I was interested in,'' says E.Blanton Hamilton Jr., a Darden student looking at real estate careers.

The market crash not only stepped up competition but also sharpened a general uneasiness among students about the future. It raised doubts about the economy's strength and its ability to absorb a new horde of MBAs - not just on Wall Street, but in the entire job market.

That uncertainty was reflected in an interview that James Van Vleck, a recruiter for Mead Corporation, had with a Darden student last week.

``I asked him for a description of the ideal job,'' he recalls. ``The first thing he said was, `One that's going to be there tomorrow.'''

``I had never heard that before,'' he says.