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The Big 4 Ranks Are Thinning Out Again

Illustration of businesswoman standing at an exit door

For at least a year now, we’ve heard from Big 4 leadership and their spokespeople that historically low attrition combined with slowing demand for consulting services are forcing firms to lay off staff. Attrition is baked into the business model so when people don’t leave as expected, firms have to start pushing them out like little squawking birds getting shoved out of the nest. In the UK, PwC is asking 500–600 people to leave, offering them a more generous severance package if they do, in lieu of layoffs which they’ll end up doing if not enough people voluntarily leave.

Wacky attrition (and the overcapacity that results from it) is further complicated by the profession’s talent problem coupled with the Great Resignation, both of which meant firms may have overhired when the economy was better as they expected higher attrition and a potential lack of available talent.

Well here’s where we are today. In an article mostly about EY laying partners off last week, WSJ’s CFO Journal shares a statistic on just how many people have left US Big 4 firms in the last year: 65,800.

U.S. worker exits at the Big Four firms—both voluntary and not—are up 43% through October from the year-earlier period, to about 65,800, according to a review of online professional profiles by Revelio Labs, a provider of workplace data. Globally, there were about 307,000 Big Four exits this year through October, up 15.4% from the prior-year period, Revelio said.

Big Four Accounting Firms Overhired. Now They’re Starting to Lay Off Partners,” CFO Journal December 15, 2023

When CFO Journal covered these same stats back in July, the number of leavers had fallen 11.6% for the year through June:

While hiring soared in the wake of the pandemic, other data sets show exits were also rising. In the U.S. at the four firms, exits—both voluntary and not—have generally climbed each year since at least 2019, according to a review of online professional profiles by Revelio Labs, a provider of workplace data. In 2022, roughly 56,600 people collectively left the firms, up 8.3% from a year earlier in the Revelio data.

But that scenario flipped this year, even amid layoffs. Exits at the four big firms have dropped, falling 11.6% through June from the year-earlier period, to about 21,400 in the U.S., according to Revelio.

So it looks like people are starting to leave again and attrition may return to normal next year. Or a fuckton of people are getting counseled out on top of layoffs. Why not both.