How consulting leaders can tackle the retention problem of juniors

04 December 2018 9 min. read

Consultancies have long been an attractive career path for younger people looking to learn fast and get a variety of experiences. However, consultancies whose culture hasn’t kept pace with the times are finding it harder to retain great consultants a few years into their careers. Often these talented young people will be lured away to greener pastures by better career growth opportunities, cooler offices and perkier benefits. 

Retention in professional services is a well-known problem, particularly within the Big 4 – Deloitte, EY, KPMG and PwC – where attrition rates can be as high as 15% to 20%. Every year, career-hungry graduates join the ranks of consultancies looking for valuable experience and a household name on their CV. But often after a few years, and having gained the first promotion, they leave. So, what can professional services firms do to encourage them to stay for longer?

Factors behind the junior retention problem

To solve a problem, leaders and HR managers first have to understand what’s causing it. Most people today below Senior Manager-level in consultancies are millennials. While there is much stereotyping surrounding millennials, studies do indicate that they are more likely to stick with an employer for a matter of years rather than decades. 

There are many factors at play. Younger generations have fewer financial obligations than before, for instance. There are less millennial homeowners and people are having children later in their careers. Older generations were often happy to settle into a consulting firm for a few decades – but not so with today’s junior employees. Most plan to only stay with a company for a couple of years.

How consulting leaders can tackle the retention problem of juniors

As soon as a company isn’t aligned with their wider career goals and lifestyle, these employees will leave. They tend to consider the whole ‘deal’ that they’re getting from a firm as well, such as travel opportunities, career growth, flexible working and the company culture. Therefore, solving the junior-level retention issue can be as simple as considering each factor, especially around career growth. 

Career growth of junior consultants

Juniors prize development opportunities. They’re an ambitious bunch and will often jump at the chance to extend their skills and role, particularly around leadership. In fact, 94% of juniors are more attracted to firms that offer skills development and 92% to ones that have clear career progression. Offering each junior a chance to develop and grow can be a good incentive for them to stay – after all, people may be less likely to leave if they’re learning something new every day. 

How professional services have stepped up

The desire for leadership training was something PwC uncovered when looking for ways to reduce its high junior attrition rate. A survey sent to 44,000 of its employees found that juniors valued two things: flexibility and leadership training. This spurred PwC into action, offering a flexible work programme that allows all employees (not just juniors) the ability to fit work into other commitments. A good work/life balance is valued by juniors, particularly the ability to travel or do further study. PwC’s programme has had 90% uptake.

Deloitte offers a similar scheme, called the ‘WorkAgility Programme' where employees can elect for extended time off to travel. The scheme by Deloitte seems specifically tailored to juniors, where a desire for overseas is almost stereotypical.

Returning to PwC, the firm additionally realised the value of early leadership training for juniors. PwC started ‘Discover’, a leadership retreat aimed at juniors who had just been promoted to their first manager role. Here, juniors learned about key leadership skills as well as reflected on their career goals, strengths and further opportunities for growth with PwC. Other members of the Big 4 have been prioritising career growth as well. Many run regular workshops, giving juniors the time to work on their career plans, as well as providing coaching or mentoring programmes.

Retention solved through culture

UK-origin management consultancy Baringa Partners is consistently ranked as one of the UK’s best workplaces in Great Place to Work. Its employee satisfaction rating is an impressive 92% with a turnover rate of just 8% in 2017.

This success, according to the firm, lies in the view that there isn’t a single solution to improving retention and company culture. It’s about using every opportunity to maximise employee potential. Notably, one of its strategies is to offer every employee a £300 budget to spend on anything that promotes their wellbeing. Baringa employees have spent it on music tuition, language classes and sailing qualifications – to name but a few. Again, this ties into the wider ‘deal’ that many juniors look for. They don’t just want a job that pays the bills at the end of the month, they want a lifestyle.

“Improving retention among junior consultants requires a culture change and building career development into every part of a firm.”

Getting started with junior retention

For consulting firms wishing to reduce retention of their junior consultants, there are some foundations to get right, says Karina Brown, founder at GroHappy, a firm specialised in talent management. Brown highlights that it can take time to implement some retention schemes, but others will give relatively quick results. "Importantly, it’s not enough to do one or two activities sporadically. Improving retention requires a culture change and building career development into every part of a firm." Four recommendations:

1. Talk more

Junior employees prefer regular communication with their managers instead of a formal annual review. Giving feedback little and often works well with this generation, as does informal career chats. Regular career conversations should happen as par for the course. During these discussions, opportunities for the firm to help an employee may arise, or further activities for the junior to do may be identified. They can prove invaluable in motivating and growing an employee – with a knock-on benefit on retention. 

2. Offer the right career support

Consultancies often appoint a more senior, internal career coach or mentor who is on point to support someone’s career development. But many aren’t fully comfortable in having open, honest career conversations, so equip them with the right tools and knowledge.

Employees must feel safe saying things during the conversation that won’t be held against them by the firm, otherwise, the value of the discussion is lost. If a junior admits that they plan to leave to become a Product Manager, for example, it’s better for the firm to have some forewarning. There might even be some ways for the firm to help that employee reach their ultimate career goal – a stretch assignment could teach them valuable agile techniques. The goodwill built through helping that employee will pay off in getting the best work from that person whilst they are still at the firm.

3. Provide targeted support

Everyone develops differently, so a programme shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all. At different stages of their career, junior consultant may need more or less support (after a promotion, for instance). Furthermore, some may prefer to learn during a dedicated time in the work day, whilst others may like on-the-go learning. Use different techniques and technology to tailor career development to each individual. 

4. Don’t force people to stay

Although improving retention is about keeping hold of employees, there comes a point when everyone must move on. When employees have reached this stage, there’s little-to-no value in forcing them to remain with the consulting firm. A larger benefits package or a promotion may keep them for a bit longer, but it won’t necessarily get the best work from them. Helping them with their next step can generate huge amounts of goodwill that, hopefully, they carry forward beyond their time with your company.

Finally, therein lies the balance that firms need to strike: making the most of every individual when they work for the company, but letting them go when the time is right. Ironically, it’s when leaders let their junior know that it’s okay to leave, that they tend to remain for longer.

Related: Why strategy and management consulting are so popular among graduates.