Introduction to consulting & professional services

What do these terms mean? And could a career here be for you? The Gateway gives you the facts

What are consulting and professional services?

Professional services means various types of specialist assistance provided to a company from external sources. The broad areas that professional services encompasses include (but are not limited to) accounting, auditing, tax, financial advice and risk management.

To turn to consultancy, although all of these services are, in a sense, consultancy services provided by professional services firms, the term consultancy tends to be used to refer to expert operational or strategic advice provided by dedicated divisions of broader professional services firms, or by specialist consultancy firms.

What kind of careers are available to graduates in this industry?

The main resource that professional services firms offer to their clients is their people, so these companies are perennially among the biggest hirers in the country. As the national economy is currently growing, the professional services industry in the UK is expanding rapidly and recruiting graduates across the board, which is great news for students interested in a career in business.

Professional services firms offer many different career paths to graduates. Employers in this sector can help you become an accountant, actuary, tax specialist or management consultant. But that's by no means all; if you want to work in technology, be a commercial law expert, or specialise in economic or political analysis, professional services firms are also well worth a look.

Graduates who join one of these firms are usually placed on carefully structured training programmes spanning a number of years, which often lead to a professional qualification in a discipline relevant to their section of the firm, for example, accountancy, tax or financial analysis. Once these qualifications have been obtained, there are plenty of opportunities to continue to progress at a professional services firm, but the experience and knowledge you will have gained will also make you highly desirable elsewhere in the corporate world - a move at this point to a client, or other, company will definitely be an option.

Who are the major recruiters?

The industry skyline is dominated by the "Big Four": Deloitte, Ernst & Young, KPMG and PwC. These are multinational conglomerates that between them audit all but one of the FTSE 100, tower over the tax and consultancy landscapes, and hire thousands of UK graduates every year.

Away from these giants, there is still plenty of opportunity in the field. Medium-sized firms like BDO, Grant Thornton, Baker Tilly, Mazars, PKF and RSM Tenon are big employers too, with the first two hiring a combined total of 500 graduates in 2011. There are also many smaller and/or more specialised outfits which also offer high-quality training and career opportunities in slightly different working environments.

Those interested in consultancy should look to both the consultancy arms of the large professional services organisations and to specialist consultancy firms, such as industry giant Accenture, and boutique firms like Mercer and Oliver Wyman.

What kind of students are they looking for?

Students of some disciplines may be drawn to a particular role within professional services. Finance graduates might be happy working in a tax audit position, while those with a computing background may feel more at home in technology consulting. But professional services firms these days embrace those from all academic backgrounds because, in general, rather than seeking out students with knowledge of a particular subject, they are looking for a package: academic achievement (a 2:1 is usually required), demonstrable interest and initiative, and certain personal qualities.

The daily business of a professional services firm is to analyse, troubleshoot and problem solve, so recruiters look for those able to rise to complex challenges and find solutions for their clients. The work also requires creative thinking, communication skills, and the ability to articulate ideas and propositions to clients and other team members. For all of these areas, look to extra-curricular activities to get experience that demonstrates these skills.

Given the comprehensive services provided, industries serviced and locations covered, flexible and adaptable candidates tend to be preferred.

Will I need to do any further study when I finish my degree?

Upon joining a professional services firm, many graduates will often undertake further study, both for internal programmes and also to gain the professional qualifications relevant to their role. The study will usually be undertaken alongside your full-time job which means you must be prepared to hit the books after a hard day at the office, though you may have some weeks devoted to training out of the office and most firms offer periods of study leave before exams.

And the learning doesn't stop once you qualify - professional services firms are renowned for their comprehensive ongoing staff development.

If I'm interested, what should my next steps be?

Professional services firms run a range of events targeted at first year students, which are a great way of finding out if this sector is for you.

It's also helpful to start reading up about the work of these firms and the business world in general, which will give you material for the application forms and interviews you'll complete in the future, and will also allow you to confirm to yourself that you want to start your career in this sector.

And The Gateway is here to give you a hand! We'll give you valuable insights into professional services firms, make sure you know all the key deadlines, and help you build your commercial awareness.