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‘Big Four’ look beyond academics

‘Big Four’ look beyond academics

By: Harriet Agnew
Professional services firms are among the biggest recruiters of graduates in the UK. Now, the way in which they decide who makes the cut is undergoing a fundamental change.

PwC, Deloitte, EY and KPMG, the so-called Big Four, receive more than 80,000 graduate applications between them. They have been forced to modernise their student selection process to improve diversity, increase social mobility and appeal to a generation of tech-savvy millennials.

The transformation is happening just as the number of young people these firms are hiring is returning to pre-financial crisis levels.

The firms are looking for recruits with potential but who in the past would have fallen through the cracks of traditional recruitment programmes. To do this, they are scrapping the approach of comparing candidates by academic scores and the relative selectiveness of the university they attended.

For example, students are no longer required to have a minimum of 300 Ucas points (equivalent to three B grades) and a 2:1 degree classification to apply for EY’s entry-level positions for 2016. Instead, EY will use assessments conducted online and numerical tests to suss out the potential of applicants.

Similarly, in June, PwC scrapped Ucas points as an assessment tool for its entry process. Richard Irwin, the company’s director of student recruitment, says: “A-level results vary significantly with proxies for social class — the south of England versus the north, parents who are better off and parents who went to university. Those things can’t be predictors of whether you’re a good accountant or management consultant.”

Meanwhile, Deloitte has adopted contextualised academic data for its entry-level recruitment process. The firm wants to understand the economic background and personal circumstances surrounding their candidates’ scholastic achievements. In Deloitte’s case, not all A-level grades are the same. In fact, three B grades at A-level in a school where the average student achieves three D grades is identified as an exceptional performance.

In addition, the firm’s interviewers no longer have access to details of an applicant’s school or university. This is to prevent unconscious bias and to ensure job offers are made on the basis of present potential rather than past personal circumstance. To improve gender diversity, Deloitte also intends to remove candidates’ names from the selection process.

As part of placing less emphasis on academic achievement in recruiting, the firms are also targeting more school leavers and apprentices. “Employability skills are more important than ever,” says Sharon Spice, director of global student recruitment at the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales.

“Young people must impress with their willingness to learn, commitment and motivation. New recruits must show they can work in a team, communicate, solve problems and have commercial awareness.”

Figuring out how to measure such criteria is a work in progress for those recruiting young people. “Every year, we take data from the selection process and compare these to their performance in exams and in the business,” says PwC’s Mr Irwin. The mistake he is anxious to avoid, he adds, is to reject a candidate too early.

What to expect

In the UK, PwC hires annually more graduates than any of its peers. Here is how it whittles them down:

1. Online application form (40,000)

2. Psychometric assessment, numerical and logical reasoning tests and personality questionnaire

3. Telephone interview (11,500)

4. Assessment day (5,000)

5. Interview with a partner (3,000)

6. Offer (1,700-1,800)

By the numbers

UK headcount 19,741
Graduate places 1,600
Graduate applications 40,000

UK headcount 16,364
Graduate places 950
Graduate applications 15,000

UK headcount 15,848
Graduate places 1,100
Graduate applications Undisclosed

UK headcount 11,652
Graduate places 1,000
Graduate applications 28,000

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