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Credit: Brandon Li

In Penn’s career survey for the Class of 2020, over 50% of graduates who went directly into the workforce went into some form of finance, with 20% going into consulting. The pre-professional culture at Penn places heavy prestige on careers in finance, which pressures many Penn students who would otherwise pursue different careers into consulting. The influence Wharton has on Penn’s reputation, both on campus and to the rest of the world, certainly props up that prestige. There are dozens of consulting and consulting-related student organizations listed on Penn Clubs, all influencing wide-eyed first years. And with Penn’s ever-increasing cost of tuition, students are coerced into seeking jobs with high starting salaries like consulting.

The allure of prestige and profitability cannot be understated as incentives for a career in consulting. However, another reason why many college students pursue consulting careers is because they fall for this notion that they are creating positive change in the world. This narrative is pushed by consulting firms’ idealistic but vague mission statements; for example, the Boston Consulting Group’s mission statement uses phrases such as “social impact,” “integrity,” and “transformation.” McKinsey & Company claims that its purpose is “to help create positive, enduring change in the world.” The firms’ countless diversity initiatives further this false sense of progress, while rarely actually making a difference. Optimistic college students are oftentimes the perfect prey for this pretense, and we are here to warn Penn students that profiteering consulting firms are disguising themselves as altruistic pioneers. 

Consulting companies often argue their solutions for companies have a secondary effect of improving society. The ability of companies to improve their products or services for their customers or the economy as a whole after hiring a consulting firm is debatable. Yet, the one thing companies are consistently successful at is raising shareholder value, at the expense of worker payroll and benefits, and millions of people worldwide.

McKinsey played a huge role in the proliferation of opioid addictions in the United States, resulting in the death of 450,000 Americans and affecting the livelihoods of many more. Bain & Company is well-known for consulting for Guinness on their share-trading fraud in the 1980s. Multiple U.S. consulting firms also helped Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a ruthless dictator known for torturing and killing dissidents, consolidate power in Saudi Arabia with the backing of the U.S. military. In bin Salman’s case, these consulting firms used the same tactic of enacting minor social progress to uphold their reputations while continuing to exploit the general population, as Saudi Arabia lifted a ban on women driving but still continues to detain women’s rights activists. All of this exploitation enriches these consulting companies and their clients, all at the expense of the people that many current students entering consulting claim to want to help.

This profit seeking, one could argue, only applies to the private sector, where companies’ intentions are almost solely to maximize profits. Certainly these consulting firms are doing great work otherwise, right? Well, the same cost-cutting, exploitative techniques are used across the public sector and NGOs. McKinsey was a huge proponent of Common Core, an expensive education initiative that employed consultants from McKinsey and other firms with no real experience in education and failed to produce any meaningful results

McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group have well publicized their involvement in tackling global health issues, claiming to take on many cases pro bono. Yet, both firms were paid over $300 million from 2006 to 2017 by the Gates Foundation and the WHO, which far exceeds the health budgets of many of the countries these consulting firms are claiming to help. Just like for education consulting, many health officials complained that consultants were not healthcare experts and did not understand the context of their local health issues. In addition, despite being one of the issues they put in the forefront, the actual number of consultants at these firms working on global health issues is quite small. This last point is an important one; even if these firms tackle projects that genuinely better society, there are so few of these projects that it is unlikely that any individual choosing to go into consulting to try to solve these issues will actually be able to do so.

We strongly urge Penn students to not fall for the consulting ruse. If students are truly intent on making a positive difference in the world, this cannot be done through consulting. This pervasive notion that true social and economic change can be achieved while profits are prioritized is a lie. Penn’s pre-professional culture causes many students to equate the prestige of consulting with social impact. However, oftentimes the less glamorous and lucrative careers are the ones that bring about the most meaningful and effective change in our communities and across the globe.

PENN JUSTICE DEMOCRATS is the student-run leftist political organization. Their email is pennjusticedems@gmail.com.

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