In 2011, the "Big Four" professional services firms will recruit 3,500 graduates in the UK. Combined, they account for 40 per cent of The Times' ten most respected and sought after employers. Within that, Ernst & Young has the largest private sector internship and work experience programme in the UK, with places for 700 students available, 90 per cent of whom will receive some form of job offer from the firm in the future. If you aren't aware of the company, now would be a good time to take note. Ernst & Young's Head of Graduate Recruitment, Stephen Isherwood, is encouraging first years to apply for a placement.
What distinguishes professional services firms is the range of services they offer. The organisations are vast, and require a highly skilled and varied workforce. But what exactly do they do?
What is professional services?
The term itself is often used broadly, along with words like "consultancy" and "accountancy". But the four main service areas within Ernst & Young are Assurance (audit and compliance), Tax (reporting and strategy), Transactions (evaluation and execution strategy) and Advisory (consultancy). Within those disciplines, they cater to a multitude of industries. In truth, though, there is more to the company than that.
Stephen explains: "Our goal is to help clients solve the business and commercial issues that they have. Sometimes that's in the audit space, sometimes it's in the advisory space, sometimes it's in the tax space, sometimes it's in the corporate finance area."
What programmes are open to first years?
There are two ways for first years to get their foot in the door with Ernst & Young: Insight Days and Leadership Academies. "The idea," says Stephen, "is that people from both programmes progress onto a summer internship or one-year industrial placement, and then into a graduate role." The Insight Day is exclusively for first years (or second years on a four year course), while the Leadership Programmes are open to all undergraduates. Stephen explains the difference between the two:
"Insights is a one-day course, designed to give students an understanding of themselves, improve their employability and help them become more effective. It also gives people an idea of what life at Ernst & Young is like and what we do as an organisation. The Leadership Academies last for three days, off-site, and are led by professional trainers and management developers.
"In both programmes, the focus is very much on the students - it's not just about the firm. They're about helping them get greater self-awareness and an understanding of what their strengths are, and of what careers are right for them. We have exercises where people are working together and put in challenging situations. They need to function as a team and take leadership positions. It's a mixture of the practical and the theoretical and the students will learn how both fit into a working environment."
What sort of people are Ernst & Young looking for?
Stephen assures us that there is no such thing as an "Ernst & Young person", but there are certain qualities that help him decide whether a person is a good fit. These are all linked to the ethos of the company. Naturally, for an organisation that provides solutions for others, logic and intelligence are a prerequisite. "We need people who have practical intelligence," says Stephen. "When clients come to us with complex issues, we need people who can cope. Secondly, we look for drive and ambition. Any commercial environment is challenging and we need people who can rise to it. We have a sense of excellence and do a very professional job for our clients. We want people who have the same drive to do so."
Those who participate in the undergraduate programmes will see the emphasis Ernst & Young places on communication skills. With relationships with clients and among staff members being integral to the firm's success, it is the third characteristic Stephen values most highly in an applicant. "People don't fly solo in our organisation", he says. "The work we do is in teams and we need people who can demonstrate the ability to work in this way. We get people applying to us who are very bright academically, but they don't get very far because they can't work with other people."
What can I do to get on board?
Last year, Ernst & Young had 15,000 applicants for 650 graduate jobs. Demand for undergraduate places is fierce too, and even if you possess the qualities discussed above, it's important to display something extra. "We don't recruit people who just do a good job", Stephen says, "we recruit people who do an excellent job." In your first term at university, you should be working towards ways of proving your aptitude for the firm's way of working. Show initiative, and whatever you're involved in, try to progress within it by taking on responsibility and leadership roles. Stephen explains: "People demonstrate the skills we want in many different ways. Sometimes it's volunteering, sometimes it's part time work. But we want people who can show they've done things on their own initiative and made a difference. We're not expecting a first year to know exactly what they want to do and everything about the organisation, but they must have a genuine interest in what we do and the kind of careers we offer."
Why Ernst & Young?
You can be sure every firm will wax lyrical about their own recruitment record and ethos, but few can match Ernst & Young's. This year, they will be hiring 30 per cent more graduates than last, many of whom will have experienced life at the firm as an undergraduate. It's an impressive statistic but according to Stephen, it's behind the figures that the company's values really shine.
He explains: "Personally, I find Ernst & Young professional and ambitious. If you want to go somewhere, the firm will assist you in achieving your goals. There's a whole range of options and it's the kind of organisation that helps people make careers, but you are responsible for your own progression; you don't get anything on a plate. Ernst & Young is about creating opportunities for those who want them and, at the end of the day, doing a great job."