Awareness Gap About Consulting Industry May Hinder Hiring

By Roy Maurer Sep 22, 2016

Labor Department projections show that consulting industry employment will increase by 26 percent by 2024—but finding new talent to fill that growth could be a problem, according to new survey results.

Five hundred college students across the United States were surveyed in April by public relations and marketing firm Walker Sands Communications, based in Chicago, on their perceptions of careers and employers in the consulting industry.

Some of the findings include:

  • 40 percent of college students don't know what consulting firms do. And over one-third of students who claim to know what consulting firms do say they learned it from television and the movies.
  • 56 percent don't know if consulting firms recruit at their school.
  • 60 percent would prefer to work for a startup rather than a consulting firm after graduation.
  • 9 percent of students have applied to intern or work at a consulting firm.

This lack of awareness about the consulting profession could have a pronounced impact on recruiting.

"Left unaddressed, what is an image issue today could become a talent shortage tomorrow," said Will Kruisbrink, vice president of professional services and a partner at Walker Sands Communications. "Our research shows college students' perceptions of what it means to be in the consulting industry are limited, if not completely inaccurate. In order to appeal to future job seekers, the consulting industry needs to invest in better reputation management. Companies need to fix the image problem that is keeping them from attracting top talent."

Demographic and socioeconomic factors seem to play a part in awareness of the profession. Regionally, students based in New England are most likely to report knowing what consultants do (67 percent), while the higher a student's household income, the more likely he or she is to be familiar with the consulting industry.

"One of the perceptions keeping consulting companies from hiring the best and brightest is the belief that the industry is exclusionary, with women, racial minorities and nonbusiness majors largely underrepresented at most firms," Kruisbrink said. "These findings suggest that some of the culture initiatives consulting firms have pushed so forcefully in recent years may not have been as effective—or effectively communicated—as hiring leaders hoped. Despite an industry-wide trend toward diversity and inclusion programs and annual reporting mechanisms, nearly half of college students view consulting firm staff as homogenous groups, and most consider these organizations to foster a culture of exclusivity."

The study identified three key areas where consulting firms should focus their attention to begin addressing college students' perceptions about the industry:

  • Initiate year-round branding. "It's one thing to host a booth at the biannual campus career fair, but in order to increase brand awareness and recruit diverse talent, employers must work more closely with college career centers and advisors year-round," Kruisbrink said. These efforts, along with college internship programs, can help fill the pipeline of future applicants.
  • Diversify recruitment tactics. HR and talent acquisition teams should develop closer relationships with university career centers and counselors in order to make inroads with underrepresented groups.
  • Work on employee value proposition. Consulting firms should emphasize the aspects of their employer value proposition that resonate the most with college-aged job seekers when advertising job opportunities. "The new generation of job seekers is less concerned with an employer's external prestige than its internal environment, or how it treats employees," Kruisbrink said. "When marketing to college students and recent graduates, promote initiatives—such as health and wellness incentives, flexible hours, or professional development—that align with what they value most in an organization."

Tim Sackett, SHRM-SCP, ‎and president of HRU Technical Resources, a Lansing, Mich.-based staffing firm, added these tips for employers aiming to make the most from a campus visit:

  • Figure out the best way to advertise your visit, whether via e-mail, text, the student newspaper or billboards on campus. "Each school has a way to reach every student. You need to find out what that is and how you can tap into that, even it costs a little money," Sackett said.
  • Get in the classroom. "If you build 45 minutes of great content, most professors will let you guest lecture as long as it's not one big sales pitch," he said. "Come up with great content professors will find valuable for their students, then go deliver it the day before the major career fair."
  • Visit the high-traffic areas on campus and give away free stuff that appeals to college kids.
  • Show up outside of career fairs. "Whether it's the day after or even another time altogether, find a time to be on campus when you don't have any competition to getting your message out. Ninety-nine percent of employers only show up on career fair day," he said.
  • Stay in touch. Sackett said that most organizations never contact the majority of students who show interest during the career fair and instead only contact a handful of the ones who stood out. "Recruiting kids after you leave is more important than the time you spend on campus," he added. "Most kids will see 20-plus employers and will only remember a couple. If you stalk them after the fact, they'll remember you."

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