Are Sustainability Consultants Underemployed?

The study of the sustainability consulting business we recently released has been very popular. Some key findings are that consultants are upbeat about their business prospects , and that the field has grown with an influx of lots of new consultants over the last three years.

The data allows us to construct a profile of sustainability consultants, with information about consultants’ educational and professional backgrounds, the industries they are working for most, what types of projects are most popular and so on. The report is useful for consultants and the companies that hire them. The data is also very relevant to recruiters, organizations offering education, training and certification to sustainability consultants, and media companies and event producers who are targeting these folks. (You can download a free copy here.)

Misreading the Data

The study got some nice coverage in the media, but some of that coverage took a perspective that may be misleading. One piece, for instance, led off with this statement: “Some 49 percent of sustainability consultants believe business conditions are somewhat or very strong today even though just 26 percent of them work full-time in sustainability, according to a survey by Green Research.” This statement seems to suggest that sustainability consultants are underemployed—only a quarter are really working full time, after all. That’s not my reading of the data, however.

If you’ve worked as a consultant you know that it’s rare to spend 100 percent of your time doing billable work for clients. Senior consultants and managing consultants especially tend to spend a large share of their time on business development. Most consulting companies track the “utilization rate” of their consultants, and successful ones tend to achieve average utilization rates of around 80 percent. In our survey, just 20 percent of respondents reported a utilization rate at their company of 80 percent or more.

Consultants Spend Non Billable Time on Business Development and Internal Projects

How Consultants Spend Non-billable Time

When consultants are not consulting for clients, what are they doing? We asked that question, actually. A majority are working on business development or on internal projects. Some are in training or catching up with administrative work. That’s typical and healthy.

The consulting business is challenged by the fact that clients are often lacking budget, needing education and slow to make decisions. But a growing number of companies are getting serious about defining strategies and are starting to work on improving their environmental performance. This will be create demand for good sustainability consultants for years to come.


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Filed under Consulting Study, sustainability

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