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Career entry with the Big Four - a field report

Several hundred graduates or young professionals join the so-called Big Four every year. In our comprehensive report, you can find out what career entry looks like there and what the onboarding process looks like using the specific example of EY (Ernst & Young).

Who are the Big Four?

The term stands for the four largest accounting firms worldwide: Deloitte, EY (Ernst & Young), KPMG and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC). The Big Four collect almost 70% of the global sales volume in the field of auditing and are also pushing further and further into the classic areas of management consulting.

Measured against the current DAX mandates, KPMG and PwC are leaders in Germany. In terms of advice, however, EY is ahead. Deloitte is still behind the three competitors in Germany, but regularly achieves the highest growth rates.

Due to their international status and the extensive mandates in numerous corporations, the auditors in Germany enjoy an excellent reputation and are an employer of choice for many graduates. Due to their size in Germany (KPMG with 10,700 employees, PwC with around 10,600 employees, EY with around 10,000 and Deloitte with almost 8,000 employees), the Big Four also employ a number of young professionals with a wide variety of profiles every year.

What areas of activity are there?

The main area of ​​activity of the Big Four continues to be the annual audit and all related activities. However, since the auditing mandates are finite and the growth rates are accordingly limited, the auditors also provide other services that are increasingly contributing to total sales and are achieving double-digit growth rates:

  • Tax advice
  • Legal advice
  • Business consulting
  • Transaction Consulting (M&A)

Due to the various areas of activity, the requirement profiles for applicants are very different. Anyone who thinks that only graduates of economics and law will be hired here is far wrong.

In the area of ​​corporate and transaction consulting in particular, computer scientists and natural scientists are increasingly being hired in order to be able to comprehensively solve process analyzes at the data level. The Big Four are increasingly penetrating the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Design Thinking, from which new projects can be derived.

The application process at Ernst & Young

In order to be able to give a detailed insight into joining the Big Four, we asked a consultant at EY to report on his application process through to onboarding and the subsequent projects.

  • The application process starts as usual with the application via the EY online portal. After that it says first of all: waiting. Depending on when you apply, it can take up to three weeks before you receive a response.
  • If the application has been successfully checked and there is positive feedback, you will receive an invitation to the online test. The whole thing is a typical online assessment center and contains questions in the areas of logic, mathematics and reading comprehension. Basically, the following applies here: it is tested how to work under time pressure. It is not important that 100% are achieved, but the solutions provided should be well thought out.
  • After successfully passing the online test, the invitation to a personal interview follows relatively quickly (usually within a week). One employee from the HR department and two employees from the desired area are present here (often at manager, senior manager or director level). If you can convince in the conversation, the contract offer follows.

Note: Depending on which position you are applying for and in which area it is located, there will be another interview after the first interview, where the relevant partner will be present.

Tip: In the interview, technical questions are often asked (e.g. distinction between HGB / IFRS, typical company key figures for EY mandates, others depending on the area). You should be calm and confident, even if you cannot answer all the questions. It is not important that you can answer all questions straight away, but that you remain confident in your appearance.

The onboarding process and first working day

With the hiring at EY comes the onboarding process, which is very comprehensive. Immediately after signing the employment contract, you will receive a checklist with documents that EY needs until you actually start - usually these are the typical documents such as the certificate of good conduct, a copy of the university degree, health insurance certificates and so on.

At EY and all the other Big Four, the first working day is somewhat atypical. While you will be introduced directly to your team and the associated area in many companies, so-called onboarding days (the so-called welcome days) take place here, in which all newcomers are familiarized with IT, the organizational chart, contact persons and also the corporate philosophy . However, the first case studies and tasks are also solved and presented in smaller teams in order to make it easier for them to get to know each other. You should be actively involved here in order to take maximum output with you.

These days are very valuable because you can make direct contact with other areas (so-called "Service Lines" or "Sub Service Lines" at EY). Often you are still in contact with these contacts years later, which is very helpful if you have any questions.

After the onboarding days, it depends on the area how the other days are organized. In our specific case, it is the Service Line Advisory, where you are usually thrown into the deep end. Specifically, this means that you will be working on the client's site the very next day. The partner's assistant usually takes care of train or flight bookings and the associated hotel for the first assignment. For the following assignments, you will receive your company credit card within a few days.

First project assignment and your tasks

The next day will be a little more stressful. You work directly at the customer's site and have to find your way around here. Depending on the organization and area, your so-called "buddy" will accompany you directly to the workplace. During your entire EY time, the buddy is available to answer any questions that you do not want to ask your supervisor directly.

When you arrive at work, you quickly get to know a number of colleagues who are working on the same project. You should orient yourself here to the senior managers, as they take on the distribution of tasks and are your direct superiors. Depending on the project, the first jobs at EY are often the simplest Excel and PowerPoint jobs. If you do your thing well, you will very quickly receive more responsible and extensive tasks. Occasionally, calls are made (telephone conferences with the customer) and questions are answered. Here it is up to everyone to actively contribute.

Worth knowing: If your own service line does not have any projects, you will be loaned to other company departments (TAS, Audit and Tax) in order to avoid that someone has nothing to do. This can quickly lead to frustration, as the activities are completely different from what the interview suggests.

Salary and career prospects with the Big Four

The content

For graduates, the starting salary is average € 45,000 in the first yearregardless of the type of degree (Bachelor or Master). In addition, there is a variable bonus (~ 10-12% of the annual salary), which is dependent on personal feedback and company performance. In other words, the total is almost € 50,000 in the first year of your career.

The career perspective

The Big Four have high fluctuation and a low average period of employment with the company (2-3 years). This is due to the fact that many dropouts notice that they are not made for the consulting business and the associated travel activities. In addition, many employees switch to the client every year, so they are poached. There is also a lot of change among the Big Four themselves. For a young professional, this also means that you can advance quickly. To do this, however, you have to know the different ranks of the positions.

The ranks at EY

In the following we provide an overview of the different ranks of the individual positions. The promotion (referred to as "promotion" in the Big Four) always takes place within one year (e.g. from rank C1 to C2).

  • Consultant - C1, C2, C3
  • Senior Consultant - SC1, SC2
  • Manager - different
  • Senior manager - different
  • Director - different
  • Executive Director - different
  • Partner - different

While it is very easy to move up in the lower ranks and the promotion takes place almost automatically, promotion from the manager position becomes increasingly difficult. In the Big Four, the manager's rank automatically goes hand in hand with the power of attorney.

Career starters or graduates typically start with C1. If you have relevant, extensive work experience, you can also start as C2 or, in rare cases, C3.

If you perform exceptionally well and are committed, there are also so-called jump promotions. That means you jump directly from C1 to C3.

Conclusion - starting your career with the Big Four

Starting a career at the Big Four demands a lot from a graduate. Especially in the early days, a lot of overtime is the rule, so that private life often suffers. Nonetheless, the learning curve is steep and the career prospects are excellent given the rapid growth of the consulting industry. In addition, all four companies offer their employees the opportunity to work abroad and thus on international projects.

Those who start with a bachelor's degree can also complete the master's degree while working and take various professional exams (tax consultant, auditor, CFA, etc.). All exams are subsidized through exemptions and financial donations.

Anyone planning an application to the Big Four should definitely have analytical and communicative skills. A high load capacity is also important. Anyone who has these skills is well prepared for entry into the consulting industry.