A great deal has been written about the impact that the pandemic has had on consultants’ ability to deliver work for their clients—and the ways in which remote working has created both challenges and opportunities for the sector. But while it’s certainly true that consulting firms have had to go through a period of adaptation in order to operate effectively in a more virtualised world, it’s also important to recognise that these adaptations have not been limited to the domain of project delivery. This becomes particularly apparent when one looks at the changes firms have had to make to the way they manage their recruitment pipelines—especially at the graduate level.
Campus recruitment, in much of the world, was historically a hands-on process. Firms would send their more junior consultants—often themselves only a few years out of university—to careers fairs, where they would foist brochures and mailing-list sign-up sheets onto applicants, tempting them with pens, tote bags, and all manner of branded trinkets. But with universities having to cancel or scale back most of these events due to the pandemic, firms have had to look for alternative ways of advertising themselves to students. In most cases, firms have chosen to compensate for their inability to be physically present on campuses by running recruitment webinars and advertising them through careers offices and student societies.
While this pivot is one that consulting firms have been forced to make out of necessity, many have found that there are a lot of benefits to this new model. Most notably, it’s substantially less time and labour intensive than the old one; it’s far more cost-effective to run a thirty-minute webinar than it is to ask multiple consultants to commit a whole day to travelling across the country to a campus careers fair. These savings have allowed consultancies to reinvest their recruitment budgets into building new relationships with schools where they didn’t previously have a presence; some of the firms we spoke to for our recent report on “Consulting’s New Talent Crisis” told us that they’d almost doubled the size of their graduate recruitment networks since the start of the pandemic.
Of course, we’re now at a point where campus life in many countries is starting to return to pre-pandemic levels. Firms, therefore, will be faced with a choice about how much of this new model of graduate recruitment they should retain and how much they should revert to their pre-COVID practices. While it’s unlikely that most firms will permanently stop sending consultants to careers fairs, it’s possible that we’ll see the emergence of a two-tiered model: one in which firms maintain a physical presence at their core network schools, but use virtual events as a way of expanding that network. So, if virtual recruiting events aren’t just a stopgap solution, and will instead remain a permanent fixture within the industry, then it’s vital that firms put the work into figuring out how to get the most value out of them.
When we’ve spoken to hiring managers in consulting firms about this question, a consistent pattern has emerged. Broadly speaking, the firms that have had the most success running virtual recruitment events have been the ones that have made a conscious decision not to attempt to simply replicate the experience of in-person recruiting. Instead, they’re recognised that what works in a physical environment may not necessarily translate well to a virtual environment—and, as a result, they’ve treated the last year and half as an opportunity to rethink some of the foundational rules and assumptions about how graduate recruiting in the consulting sector is supposed to work.
Perhaps most notably, some hiring managers have started to encourage senior leaders within their firms to play a greater role in the early stages of the recruitment process. In the past, it was rare for partners and senior managers to meet candidates until they’d already passed through at least one round of interviews. It simply wasn’t feasible or worthwhile to have people at that level of seniority attend on-campus events—which is why the task was so often delegated to consultants or junior analysts. But dialling into a short webinar to answer questions from students is a much more reasonable ask. And firms have started to realise that the more exposure you can give prospective candidates to your senior leaders, the easier it is to convince those candidates that you value them and the skills they can bring to your organisation.
Having senior leaders host or speak at virtual recruitment events is certainly one way that firms can maximise the impact of those events. But, more generally speaking, this type of experimentation will be vital if firms are going to continue to refine and improve the candidate experience. If firms can now do away with the idea that candidates should start by meeting lower-level consultants and work their way up the pyramid as they move through the funnel, then that raises an important question: What other long-standing recruitment paradigms can be cast aside as we move into a more virtualised model of graduate recruiting? In our view, it will be the firms that are willing to seriously engage with that question that will be most likely to succeed in the talent market of the future.