Consulting: “Safe Haven” Profession During a Recession?

At time of writing, hopes of the mythical “v-shaped” recovery have all but faded and all the smart money is increasingly on the ongoing viral pandemic triggering a recession of a scale and duration we have not seen since in almost a century.

It can be too easy to think about economic downturns in terms simply of numbers on a page or graphs of sliding market figures.

Of course, these figures and charts are simply abstracted representations of what is a very harsh reality for workers listing their jobs and business owners losing their lives works as well as their livelihoods as they are forced to shut up shop.

In this article, we’ll argue that the current recession is likely to have a different character in terms of who in society bears the brunt of the pain. In short, previously-stable white-collar jobs are going to be much less secure this time around.

Of course, this means that you might be in the position of having to find a new job or make changes to your planned career path. Thus, for those seeking out an industry which can be expected to do well during a recession, we suggest that a stint in management consulting is a perfect place to weather the storm of a global downturn.

Now, you’d be an unusual individual to simply take our word for it and immediately start trawling through consulting case examples to prep for the recruitment process. Instead, let’s put in the work to understand why our current circumstances make consulting a sensible next step for your career…

An Unusual Recession

One of the most notable features of this current downturn is how unevenly it affects different parts of and actors within the economy as a whole. Thus, we can see very idiosyncratic effects on specific sectors and specific jobs within those sectors.

Online retail is through the roof as brick and mortar shops close down. Much of the finance sector has boomed for the time being – buoyed up as a direct benefactor of state intervention in the markets.

However, even if their firms are doing well, many professionals in financial services should fear for their jobs in the long run, as the move to working from home has demonstrated that their jobs can be done from anywhere with an internet connection – which includes developing economies with plenty of competent graduates, but wage costs a fraction of North America or Western Europe.

When cost-cutting measures have to be made later on, these professionals will very likely start to lose out to their cheaper counterparts.

White Collar Pain

Historical photo of white-collar workers queueing during a recession

As such, this recession is historically notable in being likely to affect the professional classes at least as much as the working class.

The 2008 crash was politically controversial due to the public perception that the bankers who ostensibly caused the crash largely kept their employment and high salary levels whilst the rest of society was left to bankroll the financial sector’s gambling habit.

Wealth inequality generally has indeed grown over the past decade as a direct (though more complex) result of 2008.

Whilst it might not feed through into much reduction in aggregate wealth inequality, things are likely to be different this time.

For one thing, our patterns of outsourcing labour might somewhat invert. Since physical supply chains are harder to guarantee in the face of the pandemic, we can expect a trend towards re-shoring some elements of manufacture.

However, since travel restrictions etc are less likely to stop someone from simply logging in to work remotely or using Skype or Zoom to attend a meeting, we could very well see the same firms re-shoring their manufacturing work offshoring their office jobs.

A UK consumer goods firm might bring back some of its manufacturing from China and/or might select different suppliers for its raw materials and components. However, some of the traditionally higher-paid roles in the same firm – marketing or accounting positions, for example – might well be outsourced to lower-wage economies.

Counter-Cyclical Employment Opportunities

So, you’re an experienced professional or a recent graduate and you are now not so sure that there is a rosy future for you in your previously-chosen profession.

In this context, it might make sense to spend at least a couple of years in a sector which can be expected to hold steady or – ideally – boom during a general recession.

Think of this like an investor who smells trouble in the markets and thus takes their money out of stocks and to buy a relatively stable asset like gold until the storm has passed.

The question, then, is what is the equivalent of gold in the employment market during a sweeping recession like the one we are staring down the barrel of?

Now, you could always leave everything behind and become a plumber – the world always needs plumbers, there are usually grants to retrain in trades and it’s a well-paid profession with good work-life balance. You might occasionally need to come out at night to fix a burst pipe, but you can charge an astronomical sum for doing so.

However, let’s say you’re not ready for quite that much of a change of gear.

You want a professional, well-paid, graduate job which doesn’t require a specific previous degree or industry experience. This job should then be in an industry which can be expected to enjoy at least moderate growth during a recession.

Ideally, you don’t want a spell in this job to preclude you going back to your previous line of work. For example, if you want to eventually work in the charitable sector, it’s probably not a good look to spend a couple of years working in tobacco marketing – even though we can probably expect the tobacco business to be an excellent example of a non-cyclical industry.

Doubtless, the case could be made for pursuing all kinds of roles and a lot will clearly always depend upon your qualifications and experience. We clearly can’t all go off and become high-end programmers for Google, no matter how well that company does.

Here, I’ll make the case for seeking work in one industry in particular…

Enter Management Consulting

Man in a suit crossing the road on his way to a new managemebt consulting job

If there is a fire, be the guy selling water.

Cynical as it might sound, when any business experiences difficulty, this will typically spell opportunity for at least one other player in the economic ecosystem.

Management consulting is, quite literally, the business of helping out failing businesses. Since a recession

McKinsey famously enjoyed strong growth through the years following 2008 crash, as it found plenty of clients who needed help in restructuring their businesses in the face of the worsening business environment.  

All this work needed staff to do it and McKinsey was also a net recruiter of new consultants throughout the last recession.

Where better to be if you are worried about stable employment than a profession which is actually hiring!

Looking At Our Checklist

So, we have established that consulting as an industry tends to grow – and might even boom – during a recession.

However, what about the other points on our wish list for a recession-proof job in which to spend a couple of years. We also wanted a job which was well-remunerated and which didn’t need hyper-specific experience or qualifications to get hired. It should also be fairly easy to move on to another industry in future.

Qualifications and Experience

Whilst top-flight management consulting jobs are incredibly competitive, the positions are typically “generalist” ones and there are no strict requirements in terms of specific degrees or previous experience.

Thus, someone with a politics or architecture degree can stand as much of a chance as someone with an engineering or economics background. What is more important is that you have top grades from a high-end university and/or an impressive history of achievement in whichever industries you have worked in.

Opening Doors for Future

We also noted above that it would be best not to take 

Even in the best of economic times, individuals will often aim to do a relatively short stint of only a couple of years with a top consultancy, before then leveraging that experience to land a senior role in another industry – very often one they worked in before consulting.

Thus, far from closing doors for you, in respect of your long term career goals, a spell in consulting will enhance your employability when you choose to move on to pastures new.


We can cover this quite quickly: consulting is very well paid.

In the US, someone with an undergrad degree can easily earn $100k+ in their first year, whilst those with MBAs or PhDs can come in at around $200k in year one.

Pay also then scales rapidly – faster than in other comparable professions to encourage staff retention.

What Are You Waiting For?

Sunrise over a city, illustrating the possibilites of finding decent employment, even within a recession

We’ve seen that consulting is a great option as a largely recession-proof job with excellent pay, no specific requirements in terms of qualifications and experience and tremendous exit opportunities.

So, what are you waiting for? If you’re unsure about where to work in the midst of the worst recession in a century, you should look into whether management consulting might be the career for you!

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