Steep learning curve draws UK graduates to consulting

02 August 2019 5 min. read
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More than one tenth of students and graduates in the UK hope to land a job in strategy and management consulting in the future. Professional training and opportunities to travel or relocate are among the top factors drawing new talent to the industry.

Thanks to high employment figures, UK companies are competing for a shrinking talent pool, set to be exacerbated by Brexit and an ageing population in the coming years, meaning attracting graduates in the years to come has heightened significance. Multiple polls suggest that despite not offering the highest salaries to graduates, the consulting industry is among the best positioned to take advantage of this new pool of talent among top organisations. For example, consulting starters earn an average of £30,000 a year, compared to investment banking, at £47,000.

According to data sourced from employer branding agency Universum, which polled over 39,000 students across UK to unravel their preferences for starting a career, the largest group of students want to work in healthcare and education. However, strategy and management consulting is not far behind, with 12% of all students saying they would love to enter the industry to jump start their career. So what is it exactly that makes the industry such a prized destination for the latest crop of graduates?

Steep learning curve draws UK graduates to consulting

Commenting on the release of the same survey two years ago, Rosemarije Haasnoot, Project Manager of Research at Universum, said the enormous interest by top students in the consultancy industry can be explained by several factors, but particularly the “high level of challenge, breadth of assignments and steep learning curve serve as driving factors for the high popularity.” 24 months later, and Haasnoot’s assertion still seems to ring true.

Challenging work, compelling projects, a diversity of industries and clients were all cited by students plumping for careers in consulting. At the same time, thanks to the sector’s propensity to attract Britain’s best and brightest, consulting work also offers the bonus of intellectually stimulating colleagues to learn from. This is important, as the work comes with a steep learning curve, but being placed in teams for complex projects and solutions inevitably leads to the rapid transfer of skills and ideas between experienced members of the workforce and graduate recruits.

Leading on from this, further professional training and development is a key draw for graduates. Consultancies rely on their people having the answers to some of the most complicated issues facing modern business, so it is essential for them to spend a great deal of time and resources on strengthening the skillsets of their staff. In the top segment of the industry, this even sees the MBB strategy firms and the consulting wings of the Big Four often send junior consultants to complete MBAs at renowned business schools, while according to the MCA, overall, UK consulting firms spent over £150 million on staff development and training in 2018.

At the same time, consulting work is famed for offering opportunities for international travel or relocation. According to a poll by career platform Indeed, management consultants notch up more travel miles than any other industry, while taking in a significantly higher salary than the nearest contenders to that crown. While the chances for helping on international projects will come thick and fast for young consultants, after a few years they can also apply for an office transfer, in order to facilitate a move between global metropolises such as London, New York or Sydney.

Finally, graduates feel a draw to the industry because it is a long-term investment for their careers. It is a highly future-orientated move to take a role in consulting, because it will allow for good references in an industry the graduate may want to eventually move into, while leading to higher earnings later in life – while many executives and government officials often have some form of consulting background.


It’s not all good news for graduates heading for consulting, though. As with any job, it comes with some downsides which should not be skipped over. Most importantly, consulting is very hard work, and at strategy firms in particular, weeks of 60+ hours are more often the rule than the exception.

At the same time, the industry is not always ‘purpose led’ – which is a euphemistic way of saying profitability tends to rank ahead of ethics in consulting. Largely, firms work on economic topics for some of the world’s most powerful corporate entities, as well as governments and the third sector. That often means working on reorganisation work, or cutting jobs, to improve the bottom line enjoyed by shareholders at the expense of their workforce. This can make it a problematic environment for graduates who are looking to make a difference – even with the small amount of purpose led work and CSR that firms commit to.

Regardless of this, according to data from the MCA, the UK’s consulting industry still has a booming graduate population. Of the estimated 60,600 working in the sector, 2018 saw 1,214 graduates enter consulting firms, alongside more than 1,000 trainees, apprentices and school leavers who were also recruited by leading consulting firms.