Head-hunters, or recruitment consultants as they are formally known, act as the canaries down the metaphorical mineshaft of any economy. When times are prosperous, they can chirrup loud and long. Yet as soon as the first noxious wisps of recession waft up from the depths, they are the most sensitive to its effects and invariably the first to fall straight off their perches. Talk to anyone in the human resources or head-hunting sectors today and you hear the language of the battle-scarred war veteran. 'We're up against the wall', 'this is the last stand for a lot of us' and 'it's a killing field out there' are typical of the expressions that crop up in conversation. And when it comes to the issue of whether a good MBA can provide some protection against the worst the recession has to offer, the tone does not change. Asked the question, one Hong Kong-based head-hunter, who preferred to remain anonymous, simply shrugged and said: 'If the bullet's got your name on it, it's going to hit you.' He went on to cite cases of Harvard MBA graduates losing their jobs after stellar performances while 'a guy I know with no MBA and a mediocre degree from a college known for partying and American football is still on top of the pile'. For the many schools and faculties offering graduate business degrees, the issue is not so much one of keeping people in work but of helping them to optimise their personal potential and equip them with broader management skills. Kathleen Slaughter, associate dean for Asia at the Richard Ivey School of Business in Hong Kong, agrees that the situation in a recession is exceptional but doesn't hesitate to stress the positives. 'Nothing can make someone recession-proof but expanding one's skills, knowledge and network can certainly expand a person's horizons. An MBA just makes someone more marketable.' And, since an MBA is by definition intended to expand and develop business management skills, not to mention the all-important networking, it can at least get candidates back in the game faster when jobs are being created again. Doug Stanton, human resources director for Zuellig Pharma, a Hong Kong-based multinational, stated the case bluntly. 'No MBA is going to stop you from losing your job if the company's main focus is survival. And, let's face it, if your MBA has got you to a senior position, then as a big-ticket item you're going to be one of the ones under the strictest scrutiny as a possible cost-saver. However, if the worst comes to the worst and you do lose your job, that MBA is going to get you closer to the front of the queue when people do start hiring again.' As to the value of specific MBAs when seeking a job, the head-hunter and the HR director didn't always see eye to eye. For the head-hunter, only the best-known schools offer any edge. 'Frankly, as far as we're concerned, it's not about the [Financial Times] ratings for your MBA college or even how good the MBA is. All we're looking at is the brand because for the most part that's what our clients - the hiring companies - recognise. The big brands, preferably the best North American ones, carry a premium. The others don't.' Mr Stanton disagreed. 'HR is changing rapidly and so are the business schools. There's also less emphasis on having a premium brand-name MBA. I think the schools have made a very good effort to revise their programmes to make them less theoretical and more practical. The MBA courses now on offer position the participants to be more effective in their organisations.' He said some excellent creative work had been done by less well-known institutions with programmes that are sometimes more project-based and less academic, but often far more useful for employers than you might find elsewhere. 'Before, it was something that garnished your resume and looked good. People didn't consider whether it actually made you a better executive. Now we do,' Mr Stanton said. Professor Slaughter spoke of the MBA experience as much in terms of personal growth as career development. 'The environment has changed and we need to be equipped with new skills to embrace the new environment,' she said. 'We also need to be continuous learners and encourage others to learn continuously. Learning allows you to acquire new skills and to develop new work approaches and ideas.' And on one point Mr Stanton and the head-hunter were in full agreement: having an MBA gives you a clear advantage when it comes to getting an interview. 'If you've got a graduate degree, you'll get the nod over someone with only a bachelor's degree pretty much every time,' said the head-hunter. Mr Stanton said: 'If someone's been working in management for 10 years and they don't have an MBA or some other graduate qualification, you have to ask yourself why? Why didn't they make the effort to develop themselves? Of course that has an influence. 'The MBA is fashionable because it is a relevant qualification.'