Harvard business grads: $31,000/yr. and counting

There is not recession here, little romance, and just a few well-bred illusions. Only inflation registers, and graduates of the Harvard Business School keep well ahead of it.

As recruiting season opens this week for the 1981 class, hundreds of the world's richest, most glamorous firms start reserving suites in the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Cambridge, Mass. In those rooms, the best and the brightest from the business school across the Charles River will be interviewed by those who pay the most.

But all the prestige and bargaining power is by no means on the hiring side of the coffee table. Some of the toughest questions may well come from the "hirees." And many students will be putting questions to their interviewers that were less often asked in the past. Life-style factors -- location, spare time, family, health -- are becoming a more explicit part of the career equation.

Still, there is one thing everyone in the Harvard Business School (HBS) class of '81 is aware of: the median starting salary. It was $31,000 last year. This year it is expected to be about $34,000 or $35,000. Graduates of the Stanford University business school in Palo Alto, Calif., perhaps Harvard's chief competitor as a finishing school for the business establishment, were hired at a median of $32,000 last year.

The high bidders here are management consulting firms. As chairman of the board at the Boston Consulting Group (and 1941 HBS alumnus) Bruce Henderson says , "We need stars."

Consultants regularly offer between $40,000 and $50,000 to draw high-level MBAs (masters of business administration). The package includes status, frequent travel, long hours, a fast pace, wide diversity in skipping between companies during the year, and what HBS graduates long to be part of most: the "big picture."

"These are the people that really jack up the price" of the Harvard MBA, says Jon Palmer, head of the school's Career Resources Center -- "the consultants and the investment bankers."

The big picture -- the view of a decisionmaker from high in an organization -- is what Harvard MBAs are trained to see.

"Harvard deals with the forest," sums up second-year student Ted Samuels, leaving the trees to be inferred. "It doesn't tailor expectations to entry-level jobs."

And since consulting jobs are almost always above entry level, many of the best students (nearly one-fourth of the business school's class of 1980) are drawn into this field -- becoming "coaches" rather than "players" in the corporate big leagues.

Thus, manufacturing companies, especially in older industries like automaking , have to work harder to pull in topflight new talent. All pooled together, manufacturers only hired a third of last year's HBS class. The rest became executives in the service industries such as consulting, banking, insurance, or accounting -- paper producers, in the argot of social critics.

"We talk about the big picture, but nobody's going to be in a big-picture situation at the entry level," says student Paul Donaher.

Gary Kulkis, a recruiter from the Cadillac division of General Motors, puts it another way: "We don't anticipate that these people will stay long unless they move up very, very fast." He notes that all four Harvard Business School graduates he hired in June 1979 have been promoted already.

Younger graduates, particularly, are looking for the fast track to a decision- making position, according to both interviewers and business school staff members. Those fresh-faced MBAs tend to prefer small, fast-growing firms where upward mobility comes sooner.

Companies like GM feel their chances are better with more mature students -- that they have a "more realistic outlook" on their futures, as one recruiter says.

A realistic outlook is beginning to mean bringing one's personal life to the foreground in making career choices, some insiders note.

The career choices may not yet be markedly different. Students still say they need practical opportunities, that life style isn't everything, remarks Prof. James Clawson, who teaches a course on self- assessment and career development. "But they're spending a lot of time weighing the trade-offs ."

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