Recruiting used to be a pretty straightforward task for Stephen Cook. As a high-level operations executive at Dell Computer Corp., Round Rock, Texas, Cook simply waltzed into prestigious institutions such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Leaders for Manufacturing program or Harvard Business School and plucked the best candidates from a pool of 10 to 15 students. Not this year. Though more than 100 Harvard students showed interest in working at Dell, Cook quickly discovered that he wasn't the only suitor seeking operations experience. "We're trying to hire the same people as Amazon.com and General Motors," he says. "If you look across the board, there's a lot of keen competition [for operations students]." On the face of it, Cook's conundrum makes little sense. After all, the 2002 job market ranks as one of the bleakest in years, with on-campus recruiting off by as much as 50%. The majority of respondents to a recent survey by MBA Career Services Council, an association of graduate management career services professionals, say consulting firms have slowed recruiting by over 51% and financial services opportunities are off by at least 26%. Manufacturers continue to recruit at roughly the same rate as last year. Shouldn't a top manufacturer like Dell, then, have its pick of the M.B.A. litter? But last year's economic implosion convinced many companies -- not just manufacturers -- that smart, efficient operations are the key to success. As a result, human resource departments everywhere have begun to focus their limited resources on hiring M.B.A.s with operations experience. And that spells serious competition for manufacturing recruitment. "One of the big things that is going on is that there's nothing companies can do to sell more of their product," says A.J. Gardner, an M.B.A. student at Michigan State University with experience in supply-chain management and logistics. "[Firms] need to keep up their earnings per share by reducing costs internally. That's shifted a lot of the focus back on to supply chain." Gardner sifted through five job offers before accepting an $80,000 position with Lexington, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. Retailers and technology companies, which were burned by poor inventory management in the late '90s, are also beefing up their operations. Last fall, Amazon.com and Cisco Systems Inc., San Jose, Calif., reportedly recruited heavily at MIT and Harvard Business School. So, too, are a handful of biotechnology businesses. Last year, Boston-based Genzyme Corp. hired Jeffrey Goldberg from MIT to manage production of Renegal, a drug for dialysis patients. "I think biotech has a lot to learn from its more mature cousins," observes Goldberg. "Inventory management, and all the stuff that I spent my time in business school talking about, apply [to biotech] with the caveat that these products are different." Once they land a job, graduates with M.B.A.s are discovering that operations people have an increasingly better shot at upper management. When Cook joined Dell from MIT as an operations manager in 1998, he progressed from managing 72 people to over 300 within nine months. Today he's the director of process engineering and maintenance for three major plants. "Right now CEOs and COOs are trying to have fewer direct reports," says Robert Baxter, Atlanta-based managing director, North American supply chain practice, for recruitment firm Korn/Ferry International. "Supply chain is one of the few functions that has a chance of becoming direct reports to the CEO in the future." That could be good news for manufacturers. If studying operations offers students a fast track to CEO, more ambitious M.B.A. students surely will gravitate toward the field, providing an even deeper talent pool for manufacturers. This year's graduating M.B.A. class probably wishes it had dropped a few finance classes to study operations more. Says Landon McLeod, a student at Notre Dame University: "There is no investment banking work. So people have gone from saying, 'I am going to JP Morgan,' to 'I am going into supply-chain management.'"