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by Jordan T. Pine | March 31, 2009

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"Winning the war for talent" is an oft-mentioned but seldom defined recruiting concept. What does it mean to find and employ the "best and the brightest," particularly when workforce diversity is also essential?

Perhaps the best industry to look to for an answer is professional services. As the name implies, the focus here is services, not products, so the quality of the human beings employed differentiates competitors.

Recognizing this, firms such as New York-based PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) have developed effective methods for finding and keeping top talent. And because the firm has also made diversity part of its strategic staffing initiative, it has become an expert on building a pipeline for multiethnic talent.

"Think of PwC as a place where the product is intellectual capital," said Carlton Yearwood, director of diversity and work-life quality. "Our focus is our people because they're the key resource for achieving business performance. In professional services, you don?t improve a product or raise the price of a hamburger. All you have is the reputation of the people at your firm."

Building this reputation requires a strong presence on the campuses of the top universities for business graduates, Yearwood added. PwC has tied diversity into this mission by targeting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as well as mainstream schools.

At all schools, PricewaterhouseCoopers maintains high visibility among promising multiethnic students. One way it accomplishes this is its Minority Scholars program. For the last four years, the firm has selected 40 African-American, Latino or American-Indian college sophomores to receive a $5,000 scholarship. Moreover, these students need only maintain a competitive grade-point average and stay in a professional services-related field to refresh that scholarship each year.~

New entrants to the program are also given a special invitation to a Business Leaders Lunch. There they get a chance to meet with senior business leaders at the firm and learn from someone with years of experience in the field. Meanwhile, PwC gets a chance to introduce top students to its firm in a one-on-one encounter.

"We're always looking for ways to bring talent from HBCUs, as well as minorities from majority colleges, into PwC," Yearwood said. "We want them to consider PricewaterhouseCoopers a firm of choice, and that requires many, many hours of on-campus work, outside of the recruiting calendar, so students and deans and faculty understand our commitment to their school and their students."

PwC also offers internships, participates in programs with professors that support classroom learning and generally brands itself wherever possible, both on and off campus. The payoff is a consistently high recruitment rate for multiethnic talent.

For example, national estimates put the number of minorities graduating with accounting degrees annually at 19 percent. Firmwide, PwC is on par with that number. But in its most critical lines of business - what's collectively called "client services" but really means "billable hours" - it exceeds that percentage in terms of incoming minority talent.

Encouraging more minorities to enter the firm does more than give PwC a good feeling. It fulfills an important business goal the firm has set for itself: creating the most diverse teams possible.

"Research has shown that diversity in teams is vital - that when you take a team approach, you should have the widest range of individual backgrounds, ethnicities, cultures and genders possible," said Marielana Suarez, a national recruiter for PwC's tax and legal services. "Diversity is what leads to the greatest level of creativity."

Diversity is also becoming an important business priority because of shifting demographics. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that African Americans, Latinos and Asians will collectively represent the national majority by 2050. This is already a reality in California, where these groups are more than half of the state's population.

This rapid growth in minority populations means client bases are becoming more multicultural as well. "It's interesting because in product marketing, looking at certain target groups is a strategic approach," said Kim Washington Barr, an associate director of diversity recruiting at PricewaterhouseCoopers. "But this has become a smart recruiting model as well. It's about looking at potential target markets and making sure you have increasing penetration into those markets."~

Many clients have even begun to ask to see the diversity of a team before deciding which firm's services to employ, Yearwood said. In other words, employee diversity may someday mean the difference between closing a deal or losing a client to a competitor.

Just as professional-services firms must differentiate themselves in the marketplace, they must also differentiate themselves on campus, Yearwood added. "The difficulty for recruitment is not so much that's it's difficult to recruit minorities," he said. "It's that minorities have so many options."

For business school graduates, those options include working in the information technology (IT) field, going into finance or investment banking and exploring a career in marketing.

So how does PricewaterhouseCoopers beat out that hotshot IT company or lure students away from the high-powered world of investment banking? "Our emphasis is our unparalleled client base and that we improve employees' skills by making them more marketable and attractive to that base," Yearwood said.

"When students look at who we are and who we serve, they say, 'That's the organization I want to be part of,'" he added. "And when they think of PwC as a firm that offers innovative solutions to complex business problems, rather than an accountancy firm, they find real excitement about wanting to work here."

One way PwC gauges its effectiveness in this regard is the Student Choice Award. Given by the Emerson Company, a leading analyst of the professional-services industry, the award recognizes the firm with the best reputation among business and accountancy students nationwide.

This year, PwC took home the award.

"[The] high ratings for PricewaterhouseCoopers are due ... to the firm's ability to give students personal attention," said James C. Emerson, president of the Emerson Company. "[I] find it interesting that the largest Big Five firm is the one students rate least likely to take a cookie-cutter approach to recruiting."

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