PA Consulting – A Very British Consultancy?

What springs to mind when you think of a firm of consultants?

  • The big international names, headquartered in the US?
  • Technical IT or engineering consultants with a strong presence on campus?
  • The consultancy services offered by the Big 4 accountancy firms?
  • Small, specialist “boutique” consultancies?

paconsultingimageOne of the issues for PA Consulting is that they don’t fit neatly into any one of those categories. I’ve just been on a careers adviser visit to PA which was a good reminder* of why I think they’re a bit different.

  • They’re headquartered in London, with international practices elsewhere in Europe, the USA, the Middle East and Asia Pacific (ie India and New Zealand – see what I mean about them being a bit different?)
  • They’re big enough to be a significant employer (over 2,000 consultants) but not so big that you get lost.
  • They work in the commercial sectors and offer the business services you’d expect (strategy, IT, financial services, HR etc) but also some you might not expect – government, defence & security, technology (engineering/physics), life science/health-based businesses, project management, operational research.
  • Their current CEO joined as a graduate electrical engineer (from Edinburgh University) and worked his way up.
  • They “do”, as well as “advise”.

What does a new PA Consultant do?
Some of the projects we heard about were helping a US-based healthcare company come up with a European marketing strategy (from a biochemistry graduate who wanted a more commercial role), a Government/Foreign Office/UKTI project looking at “exporting” UK education (from a History and Spanish graduate who wanted “to make a difference” with her work) and a Civil Engineering graduate working in project management with the NHS and the police.

From concept to manufactured product
I think one recent example of “doing” as well as “advising” really sets them apart from many other consultancies.  They’ve partnered with an inventor with few resources but a great product idea, and within 12 months, they’ve jointly developed the manufacturing capability and delivered an innovative product, now in the shops. They’re now building a new manufacturing plant (in the UK).

This short video is obviously good advertising for PA but it does give you a flavour of one aspect of their services.

They can only do this because they not only have commercial and strategic expertise, they also have a technology centre in Cambridge where they employ engineers and physicists (primarily), including many postgrads.

A rather British approach ...?
You do get a feel for the culture of a company on one of these visits (sometimes in spite of any careful image management on the day). Whoever we spoke to, the same qualities kept on coming through – they looked for “nice, personable” people, who could collaborate. They work hard but don’t seem to have that “presentee” culture of some consultancies. 8am-6.30pm, Monday to Friday, was seen as a normal working week (unless you were up against a real deadline) – hard work, but not the horror stories you hear about some companies in consultancy.

Although we met all sorts of nationalities, there does seem to be a rather British feel to the company, which was mentioned several times – there’s some tension between an old-school “it’s not the done thing to be brash and shout about ourselves” ethos and the fact that they realise that they’re not well enough known on campuses.

They also did seem to reflect the diversity of Britain today – in terms of gender, ethnicity, degree subject and university (several Manchester grads will be starting this year – hooray!)

Maturity, technical competence, soft skills
They do look for people who are mature enough to cope with working with partners and clients at all levels, from day 1. After an induction programme (including a real 10 day pro bono consultancy project for a charity), you’ll be working on real projects, supported by lots of training and mentoring. You’ll get to know the other graduate recruits, but this isn’t the job for you if you would prefer to continue to work in a student/graduate bubble.

They’re happy to receive applications from postgraduates (they’ve got a lot of PhDs in their Technology Group in Cambridge) but a postgraduate qualification wasn’t seen as “the be all and end all” and a Masters qualification or PhD wouldn’t compensate if you were seen as still rather “green”.

Jackie Beasley, Recruitment Manager, Technology Group, and Sarah Weaver, 3rd year Economics and Finance student at Cardiff, on 1 week’s work experience

Internships and vacation work were very important, plus a lot of their recruitment comes from those who have experience elsewhere first – not necessarily in consultancy (could be a good second/third job option as well as straight after graduating).

There was respect for soft skills but also hard knowledge and expertise, whether that’s technical (seemed to be plenty of engineers, scientists and mathematicians, both in technical and commercial roles) or core consultancy skills like presentations (they’ve even got a dedicated room where you practise and get feedback to hone your ability to pitch an idea).

Recruitment this year
PA’s recruitment is due to open in early September for this year. They normally put a Christmas closing date on their graduate programme, but they also seem to have taken people at wide variety of times during the year. I’d get applications in as soon as you reasonably can after the start of September, but don’t assume you’ve missed out for a year if you’re reading this later on in the year (or next year).

They expect to be looking for entry level analysts in IT, Financial Services, Shared Services & Outsourcing, Technology Group (engineers and scientists), Project Management, People and Operational Excellence (HR & psychology), Life Sciences (that’s healthcare and pharma business, not lab based), Government, Defence & Security, and Strategy & Decision Sciences (looking for commercially-minded technical/mathematical grads who can use and interpret data). Check the latest on their website, though, as business plans may change.

If you want to work in “strategy”, it’s worth pointing out that work on strategy happens across all sectors/services. “Strategy & Decision Sciences” is more about Operational Research than working with CEOs!

You need to be clear about why you want to go into consulting (on more than a superficial level), and you need to decide which area you want to apply to. However, if you or PA realise there’s a better fit elsewhere in the organisation, even during the recruitment process, you can change.

Last year they got 5000 applications which were screened manually, to get down to 500 applications, of which they hired 44 people.

The recruitment process consists of SHL verbal and numerical tests, plus a competency based telephone interview, followed by an assessment centre for those who pass the first stage. At the assessment centre, you do a group exercise, a case study, and interviews, including technical interviews for any technology jobs.

As well as looking for work experience, they also really valued volunteering and extra-curricular activities.

Interestingly, they also liked to see people bouncing back after failing at things (as long as that’s not your degree, I guess – see my recent post on Permission to Fail). Resilience is finally being recognised as such an important quality, which resonates with the Persevere/Bounce Back behaviour in our new employability model.

Salaries are £26.5K for the Cambridge-based Technology Group, and £28K plus £3.5K transport allowance for London-based consultants. There’s also an annual bonus (often of the order of ~15%), a sign-on bonus, share options, pension, private health and all the other benefits you’d expect of a big name employer.

* My previous experience of PA Consulting
I’ve always had a soft spot for PA since coming across them when I worked in manufacturing.  Most consultants found a rather “testing environment” in our company (we were always being told we had “state of the art problems” – er, yes, that’s why we called you consultants in…).  Any consultancy which could survive that, as PA did, had to have backbone, credibility and the ability to deliver.

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