Looking beyond grad schemes: the benefits of working for an SME

Many students focus on graduate schemes and view them as the best available progression route.  Whilst graduate schemes can offer excellent training and a great introduction to a particular sector, they are not for everyone.  Schemes can be highly competitive and demanding, and are usually only available in larger, more corporate companies. In practice, only 14% of graduates join company graduate schemes.

Perhaps you want to consider all of your options, or you have decided that a graduate scheme is not the best pathway for you.  There are other routes to consider that offer equally exciting opportunities, in particular working for SMEs – Small to Medium Enterprises (or smaller-sized companies).

Working for SMEs

SMEs may advertise graduate roles, or simply advertise posts that you will be eligible to apply for.  Companies with less than 50 employees are defined as small; those with less than 250 are medium-sized.  So, how do SMEs perform in the UK economy?

  • Small businesses accounted for 99.3% of all private sector businesses at the start of 2016 and 99.9% were small or medium-sized (SMEs).
  • Total employment in SMEs was 15.7 million; 60% of all private sector employment in the UK.
  • The combined annual turnover of SMEs was £1.8 trillion, 47% of all private sector turnover in the UK.*

Therefore, there is a wealth of opportunity in these organisations.

What benefits can SMEs offer?*

  • A survey by the Trade Union Centre found that employees in small businesses are the most satisfied at work, and the most loyal and committed to their employers. Lower stress levels have been recorded and there are less complaints about long working hours.
  • SMEs are increasingly interested in recruiting graduates and offer them good prospects.
  • Research has shown that promotion prospects and job satisfaction are often higher within SMEs.
  • You may have a higher profile in the company – you could be a bigger fish in a smaller pond!
  • Many graduates find they are able to take on a high level of responsibility at an early stage. The work is often varied, involving a mixture of team and independent working, with opportunities to take the initiative and be creative.  There can be more flexibility to experience different tasks and functions within the company.  You can also gain a good understanding of different parts of the business quickly.
  • It might be possible to find a job near where you live, which could be beneficial in the early stages of your career.

Any disadvantages?

  • Whereas graduate schemes offer a structured training programme, you might have to learn on the job and take responsibility for your own development.
  • The pay and benefits are usually less than in larger companies.
  • There is also a chance you will work longer hours.

Which sectors include SMEs?

There is a huge variety of small businesses across all sectors, but more commonly SMEs employing graduates include finance and professional services; legal services; software companies; construction; marketing, advertising and public relations; arts, music, media and publishing; and various manufacturing companies.

What are they looking for?

  • Fast learners, particularly those who are able to learn through doing tasks.
  • Good common sense and a practical approach.
  • Flexible individuals – good ‘all-rounders’.
  • Those who can work with minimal supervision.
  • Good problem-solving and team-working skills.

If this sounds like you, and perhaps you are considering one of the more niche sectors, for example the creative arts or publishing, you may need to take a more creative approach to your job search.  As some industries are so popular, they don’t need to advertise vacancies and fill posts through speculative approaches or word of mouth. Read our leaflet on ‘The Hidden Jobs Market’ to help navigate the application process.  The ‘Introduction to LinkedIn’ leaflet could also be useful in expanding your network.  Look at the ‘subject specific resources’ to help find sources of vacancies in your chosen sector. Plus, don’t forget to register for job alerts on our online jobs portal surrey.prospects.ac.uk.

What other options are there?

  • Internships – can be an excellent starting point for some sectors, helping you to gain relevant experience on your CV. Check out the Santander SME Internship programme, jointly funded by Santander and the host business, in which you could be paid up to £3,000 for a 10 week internship. Head to talent.santander.co.uk to register and find out more about the internship placements on offer.
  • Further study, although this will require a lot of thought and planning – make sure you chose a further qualification for the right reasons.
  • Working or studying abroad – in our global economy, employers will value cultural awareness and an international outlook.
  • Self-employment – for the entrepreneurs amongst you, contact our Student Enterprise Team to find out more about developing skills in this area and how to set up your own business.

When considering your future plans, don’t feel that a graduate scheme is the only positive outcome for you.  There are excellent opportunities for career-savvy graduates. Remember to visit the Employability and Careers Centre if you would like any support with your career planning or wish to discuss your ideas further!

This blog post has been written by Vicky Ransley, a Careers Adviser at the University of Surrey since Jan 2014. With her background in the arts, publishing and education, Vicky specialises in working with students from the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences, GSA and the Department of Music and Media.

* Taken from the Federation of Small Businesses website
* Advantages and disadvantages highlighted on the University of Kent Careers and Employability Service website.