Top consultants are kings. Low fliers crash

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Go up or get out is the ruthless principle applied in many management consultancies. For those that remain, the rewards can be spectacular, says Meg Carter.

A career in management consultancy, however brief, promises significant rewards. There are the generous salaries, of course; a high-pressure (yet stimulating) work environment and plenty of opportunity for travel. Consider the subsequent career paths of some of the country's leading consultants and you might even one day find yourself as leader of the Opposition. For most, however, reality can be somewhat less glamorous.

The consultancy business is a voracious consumer of bright and ambitious graduates. Leading consultancies recruit among top universities, brandishing starting salaries of pounds 20,000-plus. However, the industry is widely described as shaped like a flat pyramid - with the number of consultants remaining in their mid-thirties and beyond tailing off considerably.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the lifestyle, which although exciting and stimulating in early years, can become exhausting and frustrating for older consultants (and their families). The business is driven by client billings. "Among the bigger consultancies, there is significant pressure on individual consultants to deliver not only to the client but also to your consultancy's bottom line," one insider reveals. "It can feel like a sausage machine."

But there are opportunities in wider business. "Without doubt, consultancy is a great springboard into a career in industry," says Barrie Dennett, senior partner at the recruitment, executive search and data monitoring company ADD-Resources. After a while, companies can coming knocking on your door.

The world of management consultancy is both complex and fast growing. No figures exist for its size, partly because it is so fuzzy around the edges. "At the bottom end there are many one-man bands out there calling themselves consultants," Mr Dennett says.

In essence, however, the business is split into groups. At the top end are the strategic firms such as Bain, Boston Consulting and William Hague's alma mater, McKinsey. Then there are the "big five", comprising management consultancy and accountancy - Coopers&Lybrand and Price Waterhouse which recently announced plans to merge; KPMG; Deloitte Touche and Andersen Consulting.

Alongside these are general-purpose consultancies including the process specialist PA Consulting; systems and software-based consultancies and financial consulting operations, a number of which a run by the big banks. Below these sit numerous specialist "boutiques".

"Applicants must bear in mind the differences between different types of consultancy," says Michael Day of Oxford University's career service. "Many are aware only that it pays well and is predominantly based in London. They don't get far. Those who are clued up and go into the business with their eyes open, however, can move in and up, fast."

Most leading consultancies operate a number of different recruitment schemes. PA, for example, will takes around 70 graduates next year on a starting salary of pounds 19,500 plus bonuses. Each receives a year's on-the- job training combined with some specialist courses. Although academic discipline is irrelevant, business, science and IT graduates have an advantage, Gary Miles, senior partner, concedes.

"Successful graduates join as an `analyst'. After seven weeks they're let out into the real world as fee-billing consultants. People do leave after a few years, but we try to pick people who we believe will be suited to the lifestyle. Work hard and after 10 to 15 years you can become a member of the management group with an expectation of earning an awful lot of money: that's the prize."

Many operate an aggressive "up or out" policy, encouraging lower fliers to bow out while encouraging younger high fliers to soar up the ranks. A valuable advantage for those wanting to stay in consultancy work longer term is to take an MBA at one of the leading business management skills. Some consultancies even refund the cost of the course on the consultant's successful return.

Vic Luck, chairman of international management consultancy services at Coopers & Lybrand, insists success within his consultancy is not just defined by billings or hours worked. "What's important is how an individual has improved the business of the client," he says. "Secondly, to what extent they have added value to their colleagues. Thirdly, how they have progressed in adding value to their own skill set."

Coopers & Lybrand employs 1,250 consultants in the UK and took on 300 last year, 50 of whom were recent graduates. The most successful who stay with the firm can reach partner status by their mid-thirties. Salaries range from pounds 25,000 at graduate entry levels up to, in the long term, "10 times that".

Competition is therefore fierce. Even so, significant shortages of specialist skills consultants still exist. According to Henry Morris, managing director of the recruitment specialist Armadillo: "There's particular growth in demand for consultants specialising in information systems and information technology, and not enough people to meet the demand."

IS and IT focus less on computer systems themselves and more on the processes of gathering and distributing information and how this information can most effectively and efficiently be used. "It's knowledge-based rather than technology-based, and it's about adding value to business thinking."

One of the largest consultancies is looking for 400 new staff over the next year, he adds. "While few of these, if any, will be direct entry graduates, it will certainly free up other opportunities elsewhere."