With talk of consulting firms recruiting tens of thousands over the next few years, PA Consulting Group’s target of a modest 300-400 consultants for 2011 might seem small fry. However for a firm with only 2,000 employees worldwide, three quarters of which are consultants, it marks their biggest ever recruitment drive.
The push is “a response to the market and our attempt to get an increased share of that market”, according to Jonathon Hogg, part of PA’s management group.
Key client sectors such as financial services have stabilised after the credit crisis, he says, and signs of growth has created a renewed appetite for consulting. “They themselves have been pretty active in recruitment and restructuring, so there is a requirement on our industry to respond and take advantage of that momentum.”
While other industries such as life sciences have been less impacted by the recession, making the dynamics and pressures very different, Mr Hogg feels consultants are required for tackling issues arising from the end of important patents as well as competition from generic producers.
Retailing is the exception, providing little work for UK consultants due to significant retrenchment in the sector. Additionally the squeeze on public sector spending has inevitably put focus on consulting contracts, admits Mr Hogg. However PA’s strength in defence and security continues to create opportunities that fuel the need for more staff.
Kate Wood, PA’s global head of HR, has overall responsibility for finding these 300-400 new hires. After cutting her commercial teeth during 17 years at Marks and Spencer, Ms Wood has enough experience behind her for the task.
Ms Wood explains that while PA remains open to various recruitment techniques, she sees her in-house team as the core source for finding new talent. “I genuinely believe in-house recruiters understand the business more than any agency will. And they have a vested interest – if they bring in fabulous people not only does their reputation grow, but the company that develops such talent and pays their wages becomes more successful.”
PA has an international recruitment team of 25, many of whom specialise in recruiting for one of PA’s practices. In doing so they build knowledge of the practices’ specific needs and develop a business partner-style relationship with them. “Day in, day out, they have to supply credible candidates because it’s the practice head giving up their time for the interview,” she says. “This technique works very, very well for us.”
Around half of the 300-plus new hires will start in the UK and 50 in the US. Meanwhile 10 are earmarked for the United Arab Emirates, Ms Wood explains, with PA focusing on the Gulf as an area of growth. She notes, however, these figures could quickly be adjusted in line with changing business needs or client demands. A deep understanding of the business enables her team to react to these changes.
While the recruiting team is vital to PA, Ms Wood is happy to admit a big part of identifying possible recruits is carried out for her. “More than 35 per cent of our new joiners come from referrals,” she says. “So our own people are talking about the company and also thinking: ‘I’d like to work with this person, I think they could be successful here.’ We try hard to ensure our own people know what kind of people we are recruiting and where.”
This practice means referrals have a greater chance of being successful, Ms Wood believes. “They’ve got a buddy who wants to help them, and they have probably had the company described, warts and all. And yet the person has thought; ‘I can work there; I know this person; I’ll go for it.’”
Ms Wood stresses, however, that PA is not in the business of headhunting people from its clients, and vice versa. “But we’ve all got strong networks and know there are people out there looking, perhaps, for a different environment to succeed in.”
These networks are changing all the time as technology develops. Ms Wood admits her son “knows more about Facebook than I ever will” but she’s on the social networking site and has joined networks, including the old boys’ website at her son’s school.
“An old boy on Facebook e-mailed me the other day. I put him in touch with our recruiters and he’s been offered a job as a graduate. So we have to understand all these technologies and try to use them because different people hear about PA in different ways,” she says.
Ensuring that PA’s name is known among potential recruits – especially entry-level graduates who may be fully aware only of the big guns in consultancy – is another important task. With limited resources compared to its larger rivals, PA ensures it does not put all its eggs into the UK university milk round, as Ms Wood aptly puts it.
“Our campus recruitment in the US is absolutely fundamental, not just at bringing in graduates but to being seen by that community as an important consultancy, and that we’re out there with all the others.”
The big business schools are a recruitment pool too, as well as a source of further education for existing employees. Consulting is one of the most popular choices for MBA graduates seeking a change of career.
Mr Hogg sees benefits from recruitment that go beyond simply getting more people in to handle rising amounts of work. In his own people and operations practice, part of PA’s business transformation group, internal recruitment helps develop careers by offering a switch from a sector-based to a skills-based practice.
Most recruitment is external, however. “When somebody new joins it creates a buzz because they bring fresh perspectives and a level of energy,” he says. “All that adds to the atmosphere and creates a sense of growth, which is really attractive for the team.”
Ms Wood’s team appear ahead of schedule in their recruitment drive, but the bottle of Champagne will stay on ice until December 31. Only then, she says, will they be able to declare: “We did it.”
This article has been published by kind permission of the Financial Times.
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