By Tony Restell, Founding Director of Top-Consultant.com
So how bad have things got in the consulting recruitment space? In a nutshell I’d say they’ve been pretty atrocious of late – but I’d add that there are now an increasing number of reasons for optimism on the hiring front, which should hopefully spell good news for consulting candidates as we move into the second half of 2009.
Hiring update – how bad is it out there?
Looking back at recent developments, in the 15-odd years I’ve been involved in the consulting industry I’ve never seen hiring intentions as bleak as they’ve been in the last 6 months. It’s the paralysis more than anything that’s been devastating for those on the lookout for a new consulting job.
In the dot-com crunch earlier this decade, consulting firms were slow to appreciate that growth in demand for their services was faltering – and so aggressive hiring continued for a few months more than really it ought to. That was followed by a swift period of redress when mass culling of staff brought consulting headcount back in line with the prevailing level of client demand. That made for some gruesome headlines at the time, but in reality hiring activity was only subdued for a short period while this rebalancing was taking place.
Fast-forward to the current crisis and what we’ve seen is a hesitancy to embark on recruitment that has dragged on and on for the best part of a year now. In fact I can think of one big firm that initiated a recruitment freeze 18 months ago more or less as soon as the Northern Rock collapse took place. Many firms – perhaps even the majority of the larger brands – have had some form of recruitment freeze or recruitment squeeze in place for much of the last 9-12 months.
This has all stemmed from a fundamental lack of visibility as to the volumes of work that the firms might have in the months ahead. All the while firms have seen order books shrinking and clients pushing out decision dates for potential new pieces of work, there’s been a reluctance to hire resources who might ultimately then be left sat on the bench for several months. This has created the paralysis in recruitment that I referenced earlier. In many firms there’s been a desire to hire but not the conviction that hiring campaigns could yet be embarked upon. Where an ongoing shortage of client work has been pretty much certain – most notably in strategy consulting – I’ve heard of numerous firms that have essentially written off the prospects of any further recruitment in 2009. So things have been pretty bleak – and nowhere more so than in strategy practices.
Skimming back over the above paragraphs, this is so far reading like a pretty gloomy assessment of where we’re at. It’s more accurately a pretty gloomy assessment of where we’ve been in the period since last Autumn. For now we are starting to see definite signs that things have turned a corner (in the consulting market that is, rather than the broader economy).
Remember that the services of consultants are amongst the easiest things for big corporates to slash when they first take on a siege mentality. Consulting – along with the housebuilding and automotive sectors – are always the first to be hit when a downturn strikes.
Conversely, though, consulting services are then seen as critical once Corporate entities perceive that the major shocks have all been felt and the businesses need to be navigated through the new economic conditions. Businesses then need to change, they need to acquire or divest, they need to be streamlined – all of which stimulates the need to bring in teams of consultants. So whilst consulting is hit earliest in a downturn, it also typically bounces back soonest when signs of stabilisation are being seen in the wider economy.
Having spent the last months speaking with as many clients and consulting contacts as possible, it’s increasingly apparent that a corner has now been turned on the hiring front. Targeted and specific recruitment campaigns are now getting underway or being planned. We’ve been seeing this at Top-Consultant – and the legions of recruitment consultants we work with are also seeing the same trend.
I’m certainly not talking about an imminent return to across-the-board hiring at consulting firms, with all practice areas wanting to attract more talent through the doors. But what I am talking about is an unwinding of the hiring paralysis: an increasing willingness for practice leaders to sign off on key hiring campaigns and for the start dates of new hires to be set in stone rather than being consistently pushed back. An easing of fears that further major redundancies will be needed, combined with improving visibility of the project wins likely to sustain the businesses through the summer and beyond.
I’ve heard this from Partners starting to feel more comfortable with the visibility they have over the work that’s coming into the business; I’ve heard this from HR Directors being given the green light to rekindle recruitment activities; and I’ve heard this from the recruitment businesses that deliver on these hiring needs.
For those thinking of a seeking out a new job in consulting, what I’m essentially saying is that the worst should now be behind us – and as we enter the second half of the year a little more vitality can be expected in the consulting recruitment market.
Related link: Tony Restell will be leading a candidate workshop addressing every aspect of securing a new consulting role in these difficult market conditions. See: Revitalising Your Consulting Career --- Securing a Career Move in Consulting in 2009