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The race for talent: How are professional services firms adapting to attract the best

With current and future talent shortages among the most significant operational risks facing professional services firms, many are adopting new tactics to attract potential hires. By appealing to candidates’ sense of purpose and social responsibility, firms seek to differentiate from the competition. alva’s analysis reveals which of these tactics are working.


The skills crisis is acute. Grant Thornton’s International Business Report reveals that nearly 60% of businesses worldwide  struggled to source appropriate skillsets in 2021. The scramble for the best talent is commensurately intense.

Despite their historic success in attracting the best people, professional services firms are having to contest this race for talent. In recruitment, the Big Four are competing, not just with each other, but with companies across industries ranging from consulting to manufacturing. The attributes they require are highly valued across many sectors, and top talent can pick and choose. 

Attempting to differentiate themselves from the competition, the Big Four – KPMG, Deloitte, EY and PwC – are vocal in promoting the initiatives they run, both to draw in new joiners, and to increase the breadth of their talent pool – across gender, ethnicity, social background, neurodiversity and more. 

Professional services aren’t immune to the great resignation

In the wake of Covid-19, 2021 saw many workers in the US and UK reviewing their career ambitions, sparking a wave of job moves styled the great resignation by Texas A&M University’s Professor Anthony Klotz.

In November 2021 alone, a record 4.5m Americans quit their jobs. In the same month, 69% of UK employees said they planned a career move within six months. The UK’s Institute for Employment Studies described the country’s labour market as the tightest in at least 50 years, with a record 1.2m job vacancies reported in the three months to November. 

The UK and US labour markets have been ‘running hot’ since Q4 2021, with fewer applications per vacancy across multiple industries, and staff leaving to seek better pay, more opportunities and a greater sense of purpose elsewhere. These conditions are exacerbating the challenge the Big Four face in attracting and retaining staff in 2022.

Reputation influences recruitment success

In recent years, professional services firms have been beset by criticism of their audit performance, with public scrutiny over corporate collapses including BHS, Carillion and Patisserie Valerie. The Big Four combined have been fined £42m for audit failures in the UK over the past three years. UK Chair of PwC Kevin Ellis admitted public criticism was harming the profession, and making it harder to recruit talent. 

The Big Four have traditionally managed staff erosion by hiring young recruits, but attrition for recently qualified auditors at PwC in late 2021 was 8% higher than in other areas of the business, while just 15% of auditors joining the firm were British – suggesting problems attracting domestic candidates.

Lately the Big Four have staked environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues appealing to employees’ desire to work for companies that shares their values.

Proactive initiatives being employed by professional services firms to attract talent include social mobility, diversity and inclusion, and future of work projects. KPMG’s efforts have seen it ranked second in the UK Social Mobility Foundation’s 2021 Employer Index. Such programmes include providing internships to those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and addressing social mobility at board level and throughout the supply chain. 

Flexible working is another powerful incentive. In its bid to create a more elastic and inclusive working environment, Deloitte is enabling its 22,000 UK staff to choose when to take public holidays and has committed to giving new joiners £500 to equip themselves to work from home. 

Do ESG initiatives positively impact talent recruitment?

But do ESG-focused actions achieve the desired result? Stakeholder Intelligence analysis from alva has identified standout initiatives which appear to have struck a chord with their intended audience. In the period from December 2021 to February 2022, in the social mobility category, EY leads the Big Four for positive sentiment thanks to positive reporting around its University of Warwick project. Aimed at promoting professional services careers to secondary pupils, this saw Year 12 students working alongside the university’s development team to market its new Arts Centre. 

Under the banner of Future of Work, alva’s analysis found KPMG recording the highest sentiment score across all media sources. This tallied with the firm’s partnership with work operating system, aimed at giving KPMG member firms the ability to create operational tools to suit the individual needs of their staff.

In diversity and inclusion, EY was a clear frontrunner during the focus period, with high sentiment scores around a STEM app aimed at reaching 5,000 girls in Northern Ireland as a forum for encouraging them into STEM subjects. 

The sentiment recorded for firms while running initiatives suggests a causal link between ESG-focused employee campaigns and positive reputation. Those professional services firms seen to be working in the interests of current and future staff are more likely, it seems, to be pulling ahead in the race for talent.

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