Career changers are finding life much tougher at the moment. As the recession takes hold,  employers are less willing to take a chance on someone without relevant experience. So, if you are aiming to use your MBA to change career, what's the likelihood of achieving your goal and what can you do to help make it happen? David Williams investigates.

In the boom times you could bank on an MBA to propel you into a different world. If you wanted to change, industry, country or function, the investment in an MBA was usually enough on its own to show employers you were serious about who you were and what you could become. In a downturn however, everything changes.

A lot of people are getting an MBA under the illusion that it will wash what they have done before and give them a fresh start, comments Anthony Sandrik, a manager at the New York branch of recruitment agency Michael Page International. But it isn't really the case. With fewer jobs out there and plenty of candidates, it is going to be tougher for people to differentiate themselves, so pre-MBA experience is becoming a lot more important than it was in the past.

In previous recessions, employers have consistently reverted to hiring candidates with prior relevant experience, rather than taking a risk on a bright young career-switcher, explains Nunzio Quacquarelli, Director of QS World MBA Tour and Editor of The current recession is actually more favourable to MBA hiring than the dot-com bust of 2001-2003. At least this time the consulting sector is hiring actively and the banks are still hiring in small numbers. It is still feasible for an MBA graduate to change geography, industry or function, but significantly more difficult than in normal times.

Jim Clayton, Director of the W. P. Carey MBA Career Management Center at Arizona State University, agrees. Many of our students are career changers and over the last year we have seen more employers relying on prior experience as a tool for hiring that at any other time we can remember, he says.

Don't panic - accept you will have to wait longer
So what strategies can you use if your aim is to use your MBA to change industry or function?  All the MBA careers experts we spoke to pointed out that while it is certainly taking longer to find the employment they are looking for, almost all career changers will succeed in the end.

It is harder for people to switch careers this year and the big difference is that it is taking longer to find jobs, says Peter Fennah, Career Development Director at Cranfield School of Management, a general management MBA which places two thirds of MBAs into consulting, logistics and management roles. He reports that he expects 90% of his MBA class to have job offers three months after graduation, compared to 97% at the same point last year.

What seems to be happening is that the people with prior relevant experience are the first to be hired, explains Jim Clayton at Arizona State, which leaves the career changers as the only people left on the market. The interest in them kicks in at that point and they are able to move out of their previous industry. It is just that they are being employed later than they would usually be. I have one young man whose previous occupation was teaching and who wants to go into finance.  At the very beginning of the year we couldn't create any kind of interest for him for an internship, but now the year has gone on and all the people with prior finance experience are off the market he is starting to get some action. I think that this is going to hold true even if the economy doesn't improve. There will be opportunities for career changers eventually.

Focus on transferable skills

The second area that MBA career experts agree on is the need to focus on highlighting your transferable skills. Clare Hudson is Director of MBA Career Management Services at Manchester Business School. Selling past experience is about looking at transferable skills, she says. From day one we tell students not to ignore their past experience but to look beyond the specifics to find those transferable skills that employers will want. They can then show how their MBA has enhanced and enriched that experience both professionally and personally. It is important to remember that it is always difficult to write your own CV, as it is only when you are one step removed from it that you can really see what is there, so get help to do it for you.

Now that talent recruitment has been put on hold, career changers need to adopt a whole new approach, argues Katty Ooms Suter, Director, MBA Admissions and Career Services at the International Institute for Management Development, Switzerland (IMD). 'This is who I am, I'll find the opportunities', is not an approach that works any more. You really have to position yourself and show the skills you possess are transferable. This year we have introduced a new tool for MBAs to set their goals, to analyse their core strengths, their core skills and where their interests and passions lie. This enables them to position themselves for a specific opportunity, and not just as someone who is talented. It is a very different way of positioning. This year it is more difficult to change your career direction but it is still possible, you just have to really work at it.

Focus on MBA skills
The final suggestion careers experts make is to highlight the skills the MBA has given you. 
An MBA gives your CV a different look, says Clare Hudson at Manchester. Employers are going to look for evidence of achievement in previous roles but they will also look at what the MBA has given the student. Companies are very much focussed on soft skills and want a blend of the latest business techniques plus advanced leadership, team-building and presentation skills. A mix of practical projects, team-working and internship projects taken while on the MBA can be used to demonstrate the skills you have acquired.

We include a special section on the resume of serious career changers, says Jim Clayton at Arizona State. It might be called MBA Financial Projects or MBA Supply Chain Projects, depending on the career goal, and what we do is bullet-point out those technical skills the MBA has given them. It helps us present our students as not simply MBAs with unrelated experience but as people who have developed useful, industry-specific skills while on the program.