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MBAs scout for scarce tech jobs

The best evidence that the tech economy is still in the dumps is a tour of lackluster Silicon Valley. If that can't dent optimism for next year's graduating class, nothing will.

For business school student Alex Coisman, the best evidence that the Silicon Valley tech economy is still in the dumps is that recent graduates have been asking him to help them find jobs.

Coisman, one of 82 students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Sloan School of Management touring the Valley this week, said some of the alumni he's run into on the trip have been seeking assistance from him, when it should be the other way around.

"It's really quite shocking," said Coisman, who's also taken aback by the spate of empty office space he's seen while on the trip.

At a brief stopover on their trip, students sporting starched shirts, crisp suits and name tags milled around with Sloan graduates from all over the valley during an evening reception at the highfalutin Menlo Circus Club, a country club in Menlo Park that offers members polo instead of golf.

During the day, the students have been touring and meeting with executives from more than 30 companies, ranging from tech behemoths Siebel Systems and Intel to start-ups like Plaxo. The picture hasn't been pretty; most companies say they're not hiring at all or are scaling back on new hires. But the employment situation doesn't seem to have gotten any worse, say students who took the trip last year.

Still, the group is surprisingly optimistic. Gone is the bitterness over unrealized stock options, an inability to land venture capital funding, and a feeling they were pushed out of the party just as they were poised to cash in.

Instead, these students have adopted an easy come, easy go mentality. Before entering school, many students rode the dot-com gravy train to its final stop, launching companies and holding vice president positions at the tender age of 25 or younger before the money ran out.

Fast-forward a few years, and reality has set in. "Companies now are saying, 'Maybe we're hiring for a marketing manager.' I used to have 10 marketing managers underneath me," Coisman said, chuckling at the ridiculousness of it all.

Many students are hoping that a master's degree will catapult them back to the positions they once held during the boom. But this time they know it will take a few years to reach vice president or founder status.

And many haven't given up on finding a tech job. Students on this trip paid their own way to spend a week hobnobbing with technology executives when they could have taken a ski trip or tropical vacation instead.

Kirsten Knipp, a second-year Sloan student who organized the trip, is optimistic about landing a tech position. Before going to business school, Knipp worked on a software product that helped hotels manage their accounting and event management projects.

She's hoping to find a job that melds her experience in the hospitality industry with her interest in technology. But she admits she thought the economy would have turned around by now. "I did in retrospect believe that my timing was perfect," she said. "I would go back to school, and in two years the economy would turn around."

She now views business school as an experience that's shaped her into a more confident, competent person, and she doesn't have much sympathy for those who pursued master's degrees solely to make more money.

"If that was the only reason people came to business school, then they have a right to be bitter," she said.

A boon to the bust
Some even believe the bust could end up working in their favor. Andrew Kvaal, a 28-year-old first-year M.B.A. who started two tech companies before heading back to business school, thinks the tech slump has weeded out those who were never really interested in technology in the first place. He said those who came West solely to cash in on the tech boom--he calls them "gold diggers"--have gone home.

"I have tons of friends who moved out here for the boom. Most of them have left," said Kvaal, who's hoping for a job as a product manager at a software company in Silicon Valley when he graduates next spring.

Unlike the graduates immediately before them, at least these students knew going into business school that the dot-com boom had gone bust. Some of those with a master's in business administration are so desperate for work they've taken jobs as postal workers after being kicked off the dot-com express. Others have hopped from job to job after a string of layoffs from ailing or now-defunct companies. Although the latest unemployment rate figure, at 6 percent, is low for an underperforming economy, the number doesn't take into account those who are working in jobs below their skill level.

Kvaal said the tech collapse is forcing people to reassess what they really want to do. He said that during the boom, second-year M.B.A. students received as many as five job offers before graduation, compelling many to make snap decisions about employment based on things like salary and stock options. Now, students are really thinking about where they want to focus the massive amount of time and energy it takes to land a job in this economy.

Like Knipp, Kvaal is hoping for a tech turnaround by the time he graduates. "We're a little stressed about it, but it's a long way off before we have to find real jobs."