UK Consultancy sector expected to grow by 9% in 2021 despite COVID-19 restrictions

MCA - Press Release, November 2020

Consulting leaders expect the industry to grow by 9% in the next 12 months with the greatest area of growth in digital technology highlighting the critical importance of the sector in the economic recovery and urgent digital transformation of UK businesses .
Despite a tough 2020 for the UK economy and declines in some private sector markets most consultants still felt consulting activity met or exceeded expectations (83%) with growth up overall 2.5% in the year.

The repercussions of increased flexible and remote working are cited as having the biggest impact of the consulting sector going forward (73%), and 40% of young consultants say their training and development has suffered working remotely highlighting a need for return to offices to support the talent of the future.

The number of younger consultants who attended Oxbridge is at its lowest level for 20 years as firms diversify their talent pools and increase efforts to improve social mobility.

Despite continuing restrictions due to COVID-19 and the repercussions of Brexit changes, growth of 9% is still expected in the management consultancy sector in 2021, according to the latest Annual Member Survey from the Management Consultancies Association (MCA).In 2020 the consulting sector grew by 2.5%, less than anticipated but still slightly up, reflecting the resilience of the consulting sector and the huge efforts made by firms to react quickly to events and cater to new client demands. It also fundamentally highlights the importance of the sector and external support and trusted advice during critical periods of business disruption and transformation.

Over 500 consultants from a diversity of MCA Member Firms participated in the independent survey, conducted by Savanta, from Heads of Consulting to junior management consultants. Although growth was less than expected for 2020, nearly two thirds of consulting leaders said that consulting activity had met or exceeded expectations in the past 12 months (64%). This was despite the disruption of COVID-19 throughout the year and highlights that, while some firms did well, others, especially those focusing on aviation, transport and retail saw a downturn in activity as their clients were heavily impacted by lockdown restrictions. 88% of consultants predict the greatest demand for assistance from clients will be In the digital and technology sector over the next two years though activity is expected to say strong in life sciences, health, infrastructure and the public sector.

The survey highlights a range of advantages from the switch to remote working for clients with less money spent on travel and hotels, a greater pool of consultants available due to less restrictions by location and an increase in time servicing clients. 87% of consultants believed clients’ needs were fully met during the pandemic however consultants also cited a number of disadvantages from the increased move to remote working. 73% said they had less interaction with clients and 49% saying it made it harder to tackle sensitive subjects due to reduced face-to-face meetings.

Tamzen Isacsson, Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), said:

“Despite the continuing turmoil of the pandemic, the UK management consulting sector has demonstrated great resilience and flexibility in supporting clients and has achieved stable growth in 2020 from buyers of consultancy, highlighting the essential need for high quality external professional support during times of crisis. Our industry will play a critical role in the future economic recovery and net zero ambitions over the next couple of years, reshaping businesses and continuing to fast-track digital transformation and consequently our forecasts look positive.”

Respondents said one of the biggest challenges for the industry over the next few years will be the requirement for more flexible working and increased remote work (73%) and many firms are actively looking at how the new hybrid model of office use and working from home will be structured in the future. The impact of the pandemic and remote working on training and development is raised as a concern and over a third (36%) of consultants stated they had not received as much training as usual or that the quality of training had declined highlighting why the return to office and face to face training may be essential to support staff in the future.

Tamzen Isacsson, Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA), added:

“Talent is the bedrock of our industry and firms have continued to recruit graduates, apprentices and experienced hires throughout the pandemic securing thousands of jobs across the UK. Providing induction and training courses and creating a sense of company culture to people who have never met their colleagues face to face or stepped into an office has been challenging. As companies and clients plan their expected return to safe offices in the summer months it’s key that training and development is prioritised as many younger staff have felt disadvantaged in recent months.”

The MCA Member Survey 2021 findings confirm that the consulting industry continues to be more accessible to graduates from a diverse range of backgrounds. The number of younger consultants attending a Russell Group University or Oxbridge has continued to fall highlighting the work firms have done in increasing social mobility and more opportunities for those not attending university. There has been a steady decline from 73% attending a Russell Group university in 2011 to 44% in 2020 while the number of young consultants who attended Oxbridge is only 3% – a fall of 10% from nine years ago.

Tamzen Isacsson, Chief Executive of the Management Consultancies Association (MCA) said:

“As with many sectors, the management consulting industry has undertaken a wide range of initiatives to encourage social mobility. For the best results, economic productivity and growth, firms need to reflect society and the wide variety of skills, knowledge and different views that it encompasses. There is still more to do but these latest figures show that there are more opportunities for students who have not attended university to enter and succeed in the sector.”

When asked to highlight the environmental topics and trends MCA Members expect to have a significant impact on their clients’ needs in the next 12-24 months, 69% say their clients will need to review business models for sustainability. Over half (56%) say the same of sustainability supply chains reflecting the increased public and political scrutiny of businesses and the importance of net zero.

Oliver Worsfold, Associate Director at Savanta, added:

“It’s encouraging to see the management consulting industry constantly improving its approach to social mobility, becoming increasingly reflective of both its clients and wider society. The year-on-year decreases in the proportion of young consultants coming from Russell Group universities and specifically Oxbridge, are indicative of a broader inclusivity push within the sector.

“At the same time, improving diversity remains a major priority, with two in five consultants (42%) saying that the growing societal demand for a more diverse representation at all levels in firms will be a significant issue in the coming 12-24 months.”

Independent market research agency Savanta partnered with the MCA to collect and analyse member data for the 2021 report.