Public sector consulting fills government workforce demand

April 24, 2024
A growing number of public policy graduates are opting to work in public sector consulting—public arms of larger firms such as EY or Deloitte, or advisory consulting firms such as Guidehouse, Huron Consulting Group, or Booz Allen. For many years, a small percentage of master’s and bachelor’s graduates have been drawn to that sector, but the numbers surged in the past four years.

According to career services director Peter Vasher, this trend is rooted in the simple principles of supply and demand. Between March and May 2020, local and state government workforces in the U.S. shrank by 6%. Some states lost more than 10% of their public sector workforce. Over the next three years, Congress allocated $500 billion locally to respond to public health needs; provide economic support for households, businesses, and communities; and make investments in infrastructure.

“It was an unprecedented amount of funding for most of our clients,” explains Anna Zinkel Walters (MPP ’19), associate director at Guidehouse, a U.S.-based public and commercial sector consulting firm. “City and state agencies needed to get the dollars out the door fast and into their communities while maintaining compliance with federal guidelines. As consultants, our job was to help government leaders do that in a timely and compliant manner, which was a complex balance to strike.” 

Many city and state agencies hired consultants for short-term staff augmentation to boost their capacity. As a result, hiring spiked in public sector consulting firms during the pandemic years. The Detroit team at Guidehouse, for example, grew from five employees in 2019 to more than 100 by 2023.

“It was all hands on deck,” says David Sernick (MPP ’20), director of ARPA finance and strategy for the City of Detroit. In 2021, he was part of the Guidehouse team working with the City of Detroit to implement CARES Act funding. "We were analyzing documents and invoices and checking grant standards to make sure all of the vendors were compliant. We were in the weeds, staying up late into the night alongside City employees to ensure the job was done right. We were emotionally invested in their success.”

Peter Fritz (MPP/MBA ’10), principal with Deloitte’s Government & Public Services Consulting practice, says that local and state government agencies and other public institutions he works with are still having a hard time recruiting and maintaining staff, and demand has stayed fairly consistent for strategy and management consulting services. “Public institutions have an increasing amount of responsibilities, but the resources haven’t grown at the same pace. As consultants, we help them think about how to be most effective in meeting their goals with the resources they have.”

“We are starting to see the hiring demands we experienced in recent years with consulting firms stabilize,” Vasher says. But Fordies continue to show interest.

Fritz says public policy grads stand out. “Public institutions have to think about the different stakeholder groups, the longer-term strategic goals, and the implications of their actions on society. Policy programs provide training to help us think about all of those factors and how they drive decisions, rather than a single metric.”

By Rebecca Cohen (MPP ’09)

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