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The rising need for technological expertise in all industries is sparking unparalleled demand for IT consultants

By Paula Lipp

Like a patient with a heart condition seeking out the services of a cardiologist, companies around the country and the world are calling on technological specialists to handle defined, unforeseen needs. Those specialists are technical or IT (information technology) consultants and the unprecedented demand for their services is resulting in never-before-seen opportunities for new graduates.

Issues like Internet commerce, web page design and enterprise resource planning have kindled a strong need for technological expertise across all sectors of business. The field is so hot, in fact, that many companies which previously hired only experienced professionals are changing how they view entry-level employees.

The field of management consulting is well-established with such industry leaders as Andersen Consulting, Arthur D. Little, Deloitte & Touche, Ernst and Young, Inc., KPMG Peat Marwick and Mercer Management Consulting, Inc., to list just a few. These firms have made a name for themselves providing advice in the areas of accounting, human resources and other business functions for decades. With the explosion of computer technology into the business realm, however, IT consulting has become a burgeoning field, attracting industry stalwarts and enterprising startups alike. Even software and hardware manufacturers like Oracle Corp. and IBM have thrown their hats into the consulting realm, offering services that range from Year 2000 conversion to systems integration and training.

"For example, a bank might not have budgeted to add a Year 2000 staff, so it makes more sense to hire a company to perform that," explains Dean Fechner, national college relations manager for CAP Gemini, New York. "It's not the bank's expertise. Collectively, we are able to bring a broad spectrum of skills to the client."

Many companies have discovered the benefits of offering clients a full menu of consulting services. "We do both management and technology consulting," says John Flato, national director of university recruiting for Ernst and Young Management Consulting in New York. Among the functions that the company performs are systems integration, which includes customizing software packages, and general management consulting, such as addressing human resources, supply chain and strategic issues.

Other companies have responded by creating a division dedicated to offering IT consulting. For example, EDS sprang forth its successful AT Kearney division. Similarly, CAP Gemini provides IT consulting services while its sister company, Gemini Consulting, provides management consulting. Fechner says his organization concentrates on such functions as Year 2000 transformation, technical training and systems integration.

Taking a New Look at Students

All this activity has spurred tremendous growth in the employment opportunities at both new and established consulting firms. This past July, Arthur Andersen, Chicago, announced the addition of its 60,000th employee, who happened to be hired into the firm's information technology service line in Singapore.

"Our work force has grown 13% during fiscal 1998," says Jim Wadia, worldwide managing partner of Arthur Andersen. "We're continually expanding to meet increased client demand and to serve our clients even better."

At many companies these new demands and challenges are providing opportunities for graduating technical students—a market long passed over by traditional management consulting firms. The old thinking was that clients hired consultants for their experience and experience was only found in employees who had been in the market for a decade or more. New strains on the industry, however, have required new approaches toward personnel.

A significant player in the European market (and a $4.2 billion global company), CAP Gemini is rolling into the domestic market with a new recruiting program aimed at attracting students. "We are actively looking for [college] recruits," says Fechner. "We have about 3,100 employees in the United States and we are adding additional work force. Because of extensive demand, we have come to the realization that we need to target entry-level college recruits."

Fechner says CAP Gemini typically pursues project-oriented assignments that carry the extent and depth of work requiring a team of experts. Each team consists of members with a range of experience, from entry-level to senior management. "Entry-level employees are given tasks more manageable to them," he explains. "It gives them hands-on experience and exposes them to different business environments."

At Ernst and Young, work is also tackled from a group standpoint, with entry-level hires working alongside professionals who have more experience. "Any project we take on is too large for one or two people," Flato explains. "Many [new grads] will work in systems development integration, helping organizations implement large systems to improve their processes, be they accounting, web, communications or human resource packages.

"The number of college students we are looking to hire this year is almost double what we hired last year," Flato continues. "A new grad would not be the lead on a consulting project, but would do a lot of the support functions."

Movers and Shakers

Given these demands, consulting firms tend to look for students who possess the potential to be productive and satisfied employees in an environment that requires rapid learning and adaptability. "We look for leadership potential, people who can deal with ambiguity, who have demonstrated that they can apply previous learning to new tasks and who are demonstrated team members," Flato explains.

He says he also looks for people who can endure the strenuous nature of constant travel, even local travel. "Travel is an indigenous part of consulting," Flato affirms.

Indeed, many companies have found global consulting a necessary condition of business in the 1990s. With more than $5 billion in revenues and 60,000 employees, Arthur Andersen serves clients in 363 locations in 78 countries. In the Asia/Pacific region alone the company maintains more than 90 offices and 12,000 employees.

Retention is also a crucial issue for human resource managers in consulting. CAP Gemini's Discovery Program, its recruitment effort aimed specifically at entry-level consultants, includes retention initiatives. "Anytime someone leaves, it costs two to three times their salary to replace them," Fechner notes. "Our aim is to grow," not to continually replace people.

What can you expect in return for the long hours, frequent stays away from home and constantly changing business setting? Experienced IT consultants can rake in salaries from $80,000 and above, but the mean salary for technical students making a foray into this field last year was $35,550, according to an industry report on engineering salaries conducted by the Engineering Workforce Commission. That report revealed a peak in salary level at $87,600 for engineers in consulting with more than 30 years experience.

Paula Lipp is a former editorial manager of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine.

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