Energy industry offers promise for MBAs: 5 tips for successful recruiting

malcom rileyby Malcom Riley, Sector Director: Energy & Technology, Career Management Center, Fuqua School of Business

The energy industry is in the midst of unprecedented transformation and growth worldwide.  Mature markets are aggressively pursuing solutions that will reduce their foreign oil dependency as well as their environmental impact.  Developing nations are focused on cultivating the natural resources necessary for growth.  careerfairEnergy companies in every segment are competing relentlessly to make key acquisitions, enter untapped markets, and negotiate the game changing deals needed for long-term success.  The energy industry’s business challenges are growing more complex each day, and this reality presents a unique opportunity for talented MBAs.

Although MBA recruiting represents a very small piece of the recruiting puzzle for most energy companies, hiring is projected to increase in the near future.  In fact, according to a recent survey of 935 corporate recruiters in 50 countries conducted by GMAC, the energy sector will demonstrate a demand for MBA talent as great as any industry.

Despite this growth, securing internships and full-time roles will still pose a challenge for students.  At an average size of 5-10 candidates, MBA recruiting classes will most likely continue to remain relatively small compared to other functions.  So, although MBA career opportunities are expected to grow significantly, the competition for these positions will increase as well.

To ensure that Fuqua MBA students are adequately prepared to succeed in this environment, I conducted a series of interviews with professionals based in key areas of the energy ecosystem including consulting, natural gas, oil, power, renewable energy, and utilities.  Each conversation was designed to provide insight about the academic, co-curricular, and experiential investments students should make in order to reach their career goals.

A summary of the recommendations from these interviews is provided below.

1) Acquire industry knowledge: Programs such as Fuqua’s “Energy Industry Fundamentals” help students develop a fundamental understanding of the entire energy landscape.  However, the material provided only scratches the surface of the sector information employers will expect students to know during interviews.  The most common complaint about MBA students is that while they usually have a firm grasp of the energy system, many don’t take a deep enough dive into their business segments of interest.  The business challenges of alternative energy companies will be quite different from those encountered by their peers in oil and gas, utilities, etc.  Therefore, students should be able to distinguish between these variances.  Instead, students often emphasize macro-level industry challenges during discussions when hiring managers are evaluating how well they understand the nuances of their business.

While students should still stay abreast of horizontal industry trends, it is critical to identify their top 2-3 verticals of interest and begin studying as much as possible.  Alumni informational interviews in addition to resources such as Bloomberg’s Energy pages, Greentech Media, Renewable Energy World, The Houston Chronicle, and the Houston Business Journal’s Energy Inc. newsletter should help facilitate this learning process.

2) Gain industry experience: In general, the energy industry is not known for being as accommodating to career switchers as others.  Consulting firms, general management programs, and many marketing roles routinely select candidates from a variety of backgrounds based upon aptitude, passion, and transferrable skills.  Conversely, energy firms place a premium on related experience—meaning that MBA graduates will be competing with both peers and industry veterans alike.

Fortunately, there are many opportunities available at Fuqua to help overcome this hurdle.  For-credit options such as the Fuqua Client Consulting Practicum and Mentored Study program provide excellent opportunities to work with businesses based in a wide variety of energy markets, practice key skill sets, and learn about real-world challenges.  Students should also consider volunteering at events such as the Clean Tech Futures Conferences and Offshore Technology Conference to learn more about the industry and make key contacts.

Finally, students should maintain an open mind when deciding where to pursue an internship.  An experience in renewables may be interesting to a power company in much the same way that an internship in oil could prove intriguing to a utility company.  Although these organizations use industry exposure as a selection measure, the functional area in which they serve – such as finance, operations, etc – will hold just as much, if not greater, weight.

3) Cultivate skill sets that are in demand: Based upon interviews the functional areas being recruited most by energy companies are:

  • Finance
  • Operations/Supply Chain
  • Decision Sciences
  • Marketing/Sales

Whether it’s through academic concentrations, student projects, or internships, those interested in energy should prioritize strengthening or developing their competency in these areas in order to increase their overall attractiveness to employers.

4) Over-deliver during the internship/project: One of the most surprising takeaways from these conversations was how underwhelmed some employers felt after hosting MBA interns from a variety of schools for internships or school facilitated projects.  Because MBA students represent a well-compensated, relatively small fraction of the overall workforce within these organizations, supervisor expectations will often be quite high.  To combat this demanding environment, students should focus on cultivating their abilities in data interpretation, financial analysis, market assessment, and decision modeling throughout the school year.

5) Adjust salary expectations: Energy companies are not known as market leaders in MBA salary and the 2012-2013 Fuqua employment report reflects this trend reporting a median salary of $100,000.  Most large organizations have strong promote-from-within cultures that provide competitive pay but prefer to provide higher salary levels based upon performance.  Similarly, small and mid-size organizations typically have limited budgets that can usually only accommodate pre-determined salary ranges that may or may not be consistent with industry averages.  Ultimately, MBA students may have to accept slightly lower pay in exchange for the promise of highly marketable experience, lucrative advancement opportunities, and long-term stability.

In short, career prospects for MBA students interested in energy are more promising now than ever before.  As long as students acquire the appropriate industry knowledge, develop relevant skill sets, and adopt a long-term perspective for their careers regarding salary and entry point, they should be well on their way to breaking into one of the world’s most dynamic sectors.