Consultancy firms need graduates to help them expand at home and abroad

Now that you've finished soaking up knowledge for your degree, it could be your turn to start imparting some wisdom. That is, if you decide to follow the increasing number of graduates who are choosing a career in consultancy. "Our research shows there has been significant growth in the number of graduate vacancies within consultancy and that the market is continuing to grow," says Terrence Perrin, director for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Now that you've finished soaking up knowledge for your degree, it could be your turn to start imparting some wisdom. That is, if you decide to follow the increasing number of graduates who are choosing a career in consultancy. "Our research shows there has been significant growth in the number of graduate vacancies within consultancy and that the market is continuing to grow," says Terrence Perrin, director for the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR).

Whether you choose to become an IT consultant, management consultant, environmental consultant or lifestyle consultant - to name just a few of the opportunities available for graduates - the core features of your job will be broadly the same. You'll be assessing and advising individuals and businesses to help them develop in one way or another.

"The key skills required are similar, irrespective of what area of consultancy you work in," says Perrin. "The most important is undoubtedly strong communication and influencing skills. You'll also need an ability to work well under pressure, to meet tight deadlines and to work well in teams. Increasingly, value is placed on fluency in a second European language, largely because many consultancy companies are expanding overseas. And because you'll be delivering solutions to different client problems or issues, you'll need to be analytical and quick-thinking."

In terms of degree background, employers look across the board. Rob Adams, spokesman for the financial management consultancy Perfect Day says: "Consultancies benefit from having a wide skills base. I'm an archaeologist by training and my colleagues have degrees in everything from sport to engineering to teaching. The most important thing is that you want to influence others and that you enjoy a challenge."

Like many consultancies, Perfect Day takes on graduates at trainee level and supports them through a series of industry recognised qualifications. They are then in a position where they can work towards partnership. "One of the best things about consultancy work is the speed at which people can progress," says Adams. "Promotion is based purely on results, not how long someone has been in a company or how much brown-nosing they've done. Realistically, someone can be a partner within this company within just a couple of years."

Anwar Sioufi, a 27-year-old partner at Perfect Day, is testament to this. Having studied French and Italian at university, he joined the organisation two years ago. "I was after a career opportunity where I could progress according to what I achieved, rather than depending on someone else making decisions about me," he says. "I came in as a consultant and now manage my own team of consultants."

In particular, he loves the variety of his job. "We work with private individuals and companies in four main areas: finance, tax, property and legal." Other rewards of being a consultant, he says, come from getting to see a job through from start to finish, building up a specific knowledge base and being relatively autonomous. "Consultants who work here are treated as if they have their own business."

But you are not left on your own, Sioufi assures. "The reputation of the consultancy is always paramount, so it's not as if graduates are thrown in at the deep end. There is always support. In fact, an important aspect even of experienced consultants is knowing when to bring in other experts to support them."

Another benefit of consultancy work includes impressive salaries, particularly in management consultancy. Obviously, your starting salary will vary according to where you are and for whom you're working, but the average starting salary for junior consultants is currently around £28,000, according to the Institute of Management Consultancy.

Among management consultancies with graduate opportunities is The Boston Consulting Group. One of the world leaders in strategy consulting, the company works with clients around the globe using ideas it has developed over the years, such as the experience curve, portfolio strategy, time based competition and disease management. "We look for people who carry on this proud tradition of intellectual pioneering," says a spokesperson.

Deloitte, another world leader, points out that its graduates have client contact from day one in a supportive role and can ultimately specialise in a range of areas, such as pure strategy, change enablement or operational strategy. "For graduates, the benefits include the opportunity to learn directly from colleagues with experience and expertise that is very different from your own," says a spokesperson.

Almost all firms specialising in management consultancy look for graduates with at least a 2.1 and some level of work experience. Terrence Perrin says this is becoming increasingly common across all consultancy work. "More and more firms are offering vacation schemes. Taking advantage of these can put you at a massive advantage in getting a job offer," he says.

Among the fastest growing areas of consultancy is recruitment. A decade ago, recruitment consultancy was something people tended to fall into either as a stop-gap until they found something they really wanted to do or as a result of being made redundant, admits Tom Hadley, spokesman for the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC). Today, it is becoming a first-choice industry for graduates. So what has changed?

"There are now well developed industry-recognised qualifications which are turning the job into a profession and are pushing industry standards up," Hadley says. Recruitment is a booming industry, currently worth £24bn in the UK alone, he adds. "Consequently, people are attracted to it because it's such a dynamic, evolving industry."

Hadley advises graduates to start out working for smaller recruitment consultancies. "You can learn so much about the whole business, rather than one department. You tend to get more responsibility early on in small companies too and it's also an opportunity to really see the business grow, which can be very satisfying. There's quite a buzz when you get 10 or 15 people working really hard and winning more and more contracts with employers."

Within just a few years, some graduates have learnt enough to set up their own consultancy businesses, says Hadley. "Meanwhile, if you stay working for an employer, there may be opportunities to work abroad as there is a big push on international expansion in the industry at the moment."

Increasingly, recruitment consultancies are running graduate training schemes. Nigel Lynn is among them. "We have a clear focus on recruiting graduates at the moment because we believe they are our future," explains Omar Akram, training manager. "Within two years, these graduates could become a manager and within four, they could be senior manager or director." While the company values work experience, he stresses that they don't want graduates to have too much. "We want fresh people, rather than those with preconceived ideas or practised ways of working."

IT, another expanding area of consultancy, is also attracting more and more graduates. Horucul Islam, director at Britannia IT Training Academy, explains that IT consultancy isn't something that fresh graduates go into. "But it is something they can work towards through building up some IT experience. Once they've built up that experience, there are a growing number of opportunities available and it's a stimulating, fast-changing and prestigious role."

IT consultants usually work in teams with a range of other types of consultants, points out Jo Stamp, graduate recruitment manager at the business consultancy, BT Syntegra, which makes the work particularly interesting. "IT consultants are often brought in as part of a change of management programme. After all, if a business wants to transform itself, there will always be process change which is usually driven by IT applications," she explains.

Whatever type of consultancy you consider, you'll need to be the kind of person who has an impact when you walk in a room, she says. But you'll need to do so in a confident, not an arrogant way. "You'll also need to like the idea of life-long learning," she adds. "Consultancy work isn't a role where you come off the graduate scheme and get on with the job. You learn from each and every project you get involved in, which ultimately means you're unlikely to ever get bored."

'I love the buzz of recruitment consultancy'

The big minus about recruitment consultancy is that it doesn't work hard enough at promoting itself as a graduate career. When I was travelling in Australia after doing my degree, I happened to meet someone who raved about it. She had a similar personality to me and I decided to give it a go.

That was five years ago and I started out in a big company which had a three-month graduate programme. Whilst it gave me a good foundation, I found it quite stifling and patronising, so I applied to become a consultant in another large company. I felt like a number there, so I moved again to Nigel Lynn, where I came in as a senior consultant and have progressed through a series of stepping stones. At the moment, I've sidetracked to manage a team of six consultants. But I still keep a hand in consulting, which I think is vital. Without client contact, you become quite disposable.

I love the buzz of recruitment consultancy. Everyone is competitive yet friendly and everyone is hungry to succeed yet knows how to have fun doing it. You can earn a lot of money and it's very stimulating.

Jenny Askew, 29, is a manager at recruitment consultancy Nigel Lynn

'I like trying to solve problems'

I joined the two-year graduate scheme at BT Syntegra in September 2000, having done a degree in joint business studies and German and spending some time temping and travelling. The scheme involved four six-month projects, with two-week training modules in between.

When I'd completed it, there were various career options available, one of which was consulting. I was drawn to it because I liked the variety. No two days are the same. In the medium term, I could be working in different industries with different people and on a day-to-day level, I could be working in London one day and Leeds the next. I also like trying to solve problems and working with customers to improve the way they do things. Currently, I'm working on an NHS project and I can see the benefits to me as a patient.

The people working in consultancy tend to be similar - very driven, flexible and positive. You're given lots of responsibility early on, which is particularly satisfying.

Paul Dolan, 27, is an associate consultant for the business consultancy, BT Syntegra