- The Essential Military-to-Civilian Transition Resource

Is Consulting a Good Fit For You?
by Tom Wolfe, Career Coach and Contributing Editor

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Tom Wolfe

Have you ever chatted with those who make their livings as consultants? It can be fascinating to hear their stories of how they have pinpointed problems, improved processes, enhanced morale, increased efficiencies, and put their clients on the path to better profitability. Variety, changing scenery and travel can be very appealing. There can be an aura of glamour, excitement, and importance associated with the word 'consultant' on a business card; however, before committing to this objective, there are two important issues to consider - expertise and lifestyle.

Consultants are experts. Expertise implies both subject matter and degree. Can you be hired as a consultant? First, identify your areas of expertise. Second, measure your level of expertise. Next, find consulting firms that specialize in assisting their clients in those areas. Fourth, generate interviews with those organizations. Finally, convince them that your expertise is sufficient for them to bill your services to a client at an hourly rate high enough to justify hiring you. Can you bill enough hours to cover your salary, expenses, overhead and profit?

Here is an example. Most consulting firms use a factor called billing ratio to determine whether or not to hire someone. These rations vary between 2:1 and 4:1, depending on factors such as industry, functional expertise, etc. For this example we will use a 3:1 ratio. Most firms measure the year in billable hours. With 50 working weeks in the year and an expectation of 40 billable hours per week, expect an annual goal of 2,000 billable hours. Let's say you want a $60,000 annual salary. With a billing ratio of 3:1, the company has to be able to generate $180,000 (3 X 60,000) in your name. Assume one third of that goes to overhead and expenses, one third to profit, and the final $60,000 to you. To generate this $180,000 during 2,000 hours, the company will have to bill you out at $90 per hour for the entire year. In reality, your rate will have to be higher since generating 2,000 billable hours in a year is not easy. So, let's use $100 per hour. Assuming your area of expertise is marketable, is your level of expertise high enough to get a client to pay your firm $800 per day for your services?

What are your areas of expertise? Working with people? Management? National defense? Although noteworthy, they are not good enough for most consulting firms. They are too general or vague in nature and are too hard to quantify. Consulting firms look for specific talents. Experience in supply chain management, information technology, C4I, operations research, weapons systems development, and contracting and procurement will be more attractive to a consulting firm than talents such as troop leadership, flying helicopters, standing bridge watches, or putting ammunition on target.

Of those military personnel who do go into consulting, most work in a specialized field - defense consulting. More mid-grade and senior personnel go this route than the junior officer and enlisted service members. This makes sense, when you consider both the area and level of expertise involved. Some words of caution. Many defense consulting firms are notorious for looking for square pegs to fill the square holes defined in a contract. When the contract expires, so might the reason you were hired. Even with a contract extension or a new contract, it might be cheaper to find a new peg than to reshape the current one.

Assuming you do have the professional and educational profile necessary to be marketable in the field of consulting, there is an additional issue to consider - lifestyle.

Many civilian occupations are customer intensive, i.e., a great amount of time is spent with the customer in his or her environment. Consulting is one of the most customer-focused occupations in the business world. A consultant who is not on-site with the client is probably not doing his or her job. Although some time must be spent away from the project doing research, analysis, and preparation, the very nature of the job requires being with the client. And, since the client does not come to you, being with the client will impact your lifestyle.

Unless your clients are located in the same town where you live, you can expect a significant amount of overnight travel. It is not uncommon for junior consultants to catch a flight late Sunday night or early Monday morning and not return home again until Friday. Being with the client all week, every week for the duration of the project is not uncommon. As you work your way up to senior consultant and manager, you will usually see a decrease in the amount of time away from home, but the travel requirement never goes away completely. Even the partners in consulting firms travel more than their peers in the rest of the business world.

Some consulting firms eliminate the need for out-of-town travel, at least for their junior consultants, by utilizing the concept of the relocating consultant. This type of consultant rarely spends a night away from home, but home changes every time a new project is assigned. A relocating consultant might spend his or her first three or four years with the firm on four or five successive projects in four or five different towns. Sleeping in your own bed every night is comforting, but the location of the bedroom keeps changing. Twelve months in a furnished apartment. Six months in an extended stay hotel. Eventually, this relocation stops. You get promoted to senior consultant and settle down in one town, maybe never having to move again. But now that you are a senior consultant, you will often travel to the locations where the junior consultants on your team or project are both working and living.

For the right person with the right experience in the right circumstances, consulting can be an excellent fit. It offers tremendous exposure to the world of business and industry. Helping people solve problems can be rewarding. Travel can be exciting and the variety helps keep things interesting. But stop and think about high travel and frequent relocation.

Is there something vaguely familiar there? Do those issues ring any bells for you? Might there be something about that lifestyle that is influencing your decision to leave the military? Before interviewing for consulting positions, take a look at your list of priorities and decision criteria. Where on the list do you find family separation and lifestyle considerations? Now, do you really want to be a consultant?


Tom Wolfe, Career Coach, is a nationally recognized expert in military to civilian career transition and a Contributing Editor at Civilian Job News.  He served as a surface warfare officer in the Navy and has provided career guidance to military personnel since 1978. Contact him via e-mail


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