Latest research from High Fliers shows that consulting is now the second most popular target career destination amongst undergraduates. That’s not to say they all get there, but amongst those interviewed (all final year undergrads, in the months leading up to graduation) it came in, behind marketing only, as the second most sought-after graduate career.
It is fair to say that this statistic surprised me. Whilst final year students appear to be cottoning on the opportunities on offer, it is rarely an ambition which is expressed (or even understood) by those at the start of their university career, let alone before that point. And in a careers landscape in which a relevant internship is increasingly necessary to secure graduate scheme employment, the worry is that knowledge of this diverse job area may be arriving a little too late for some. So what should we, as advisers or teachers, be telling them about this vast career area and the skills that are needed to excel within it? And where should we be pointing them for more information?
What do consultants do?
It is a tricky career area to get your head around as there is no ‘normal’. The huge range of specialisms covered and the number of professional sectors that are intersected means it can be hard to describe a typical scenario. But put simply, a consultant is someone who provides expert advice to other professionals. They help organisations to solve problems, maximise growth and performance, and create value. The benefit to the organisations that they work for (‘the client’) is that this advice is objective – consultants bring a fresh pair of eyes to a problem along with significant industry expertise, and that they can be a cheaper and more efficient alternative to hiring permanent members of staff. Its best known format, management consultancy, covers a range of skills from business analysis, to project management, to e-business and will operate across a wide range of service areas such as strategy, operations, finance, HR, marketing and IT.
What skills do consultants need?
As consultants work frequently from the client site, they will need to be both adaptable but also skilled communicators. Relations between the client and the consultants may at times be strained so they need to be able to work effectively and appropriately in these conditions. They need to be analytical and natural problem solvers – people who seek to make improvements rather than accept the status quo. They need to be able to present and ‘sell’ their solutions to the client whilst being mindful of the parameters of the business they are working within. Finally, consultants need to have an astute sense of commercial awareness. They should be aware of the factors, however small, which affects the client’s business potential so that they can help place them favourable amongst their competitors.
How do people get into consulting?
It is a career area that offers great opportunities for graduates and experienced professionals alike. Many of the larger organisations will offer graduate training schemes, most commonly to applicants with a 2.1 or above (degree subject is not usually specified, although these positions attract a large range of graduates from business/management backgrounds). The training will give them key business exposure whilst also allowing them to gain professional qualifications. The TARGET jobs employers hub provides a list of graduate employers within management consulting. However, a great many people become consultants at a later stage in their career, after they have gained expertise in a particular industry area. Their specific industry insider knowledge will be valuable to consulting firms, so it is not always a first career destination.
What is the outlook for opportunities?
The management consulting industry has remained fairly stable through the economic crisis, however there has been varying degrees of stability within the different industry sectors that it covers. With the economy picking up, the outlook is rosy. The MCA (Management Consultancies Association) recently revealed that the UK sector increased by 8% over 2013 – its fastest rate since 2007 – and this year is set to be even better. For those who wish to work overseas, rapidly developing areas such as North Africa and the Middle East are also providing an abundance of opportunities (don’t forget that management consultants may be required to work overseas even if they are employed by a UK-based company). And if you need flexibility in your work life there is also the option for short term contract work (‘contracting’) to consider.
Where can people find out more?
Both TARGET Jobs and prospects.ac.uk provide useful information on this career area, aimed at recent graduates/undergraduates. It includes tips for the recruitment processes at various top consultancies and information on where to look for job opportunities. Additionally, the website www.top-consultant.com provides a really useful forum for people who are considering starting a career in this area.