Why more graduates are (and should be) considering SMEs

While it may feel like the Holy Grail of graduation to have secured a trainee scheme with a Top 100 company, SMEs (small and medium enterprises – defined as companies that employ 250 people or less) make up a whopping 99% of UK private businesses, thus providing very real opportunities for graduates to start, and develop, their careers. It is easy to see, of course, the draw that many students have to the bigger and more illustrious companies; apart from typically higher starting salaries, who wouldn’t want the career clout that comes with having those names on your CV? But by focusing on these employers alone we risk overlooking the endless possibilities and benefits that come with starting your career in an SME. Consider some of the following advantages:

Early responsibility

Without a lengthy initial training programme, SMEs can be very well suited to individuals who want to get stuck in from the get-go. The relatively flat structure of these organisations, along with smaller team sizes, means that you will be in a position to put forward your own ideas and concepts and help shape business decisions from an early stage. On a personal level, this means that you are more likely to see the fruits of your labour and achieve the career confidence and satisfaction that comes from this.

Career flexibility

SMEs tend to provide less structured career paths which, for the right person, can be a wonderful thing. This puts you in the driving seat and should allow you to shape your career more easily in the way you want it to go, rather than the ‘expected route’ that the company has laid out as part of a longer term plan. Less hierarchy means that you will be given more direct access to major influencers in the organisation allowing you to network with the right people should you decide you want to develop your career in a certain direction.

A more relaxed working environment

Not everyone wants to be suited and booted nor feels comfortable in a workplace that is. This will obviously vary from company to company but chances are, the office environment will feel more relaxed and less bureaucratic. A number of recent research findings have shown that SMEs tend to foster better job satisfaction and more employee loyalty, plus they often drivers of innovation and creativity, making SMEs particularly ubiquitous in sectors like technology. With growing incidents of work place stress in the UK, SMEs are also seen to be more supportive of a healthy work-life balance amongst their staff.

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QConsult: Get experience working with a start-up

2324You don’t have to be harbouring ideas of becoming the next Mark Zuckerberg in order to be interested in enterprise. Most graduates actually end up working for SME’s (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), which includes start-ups. And the best way to figure out whether working for a start-up may be the career path for you is to get some experience in that world. The QConsult Commercial programme allows you to do just that.
How does QConsult Commercial work?

Small businesses (mostly start-ups!) provide a team of students with a short project brief outlining the details of a particular business challenge they are facing. Teams then research and analyse information around their business challenge and present their recommendations back to the business. The business gets a chance to solve a problem they are facing and you have the opportunity to build your experience managing a client relationship, working in a diverse team and communicating complex ideas in a professional setting. Student teams are asked to visit their client’s offices at least 2-3 times during the programme and communicate with them regularly, granting students a taste of what it’s like to work in a start-up as well as to work as a professional consultant.

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What is a graduate scheme?

At this time of year, you might be hearing a lot of people talking about graduate schemes; but what do you know about them?

A graduate scheme is a structured programme that combines working and training, targeted at recent graduates. They allow graduates to experience many aspects of both the role and the organisation as a whole, over a period of anything from 3 months to 3 years.

Things you need to know …

  • There are a limited number of spaces available on any graduate training scheme, so employers will set minimum requirements to qualify for entry, in a similar way to when you applied to university. It’s common for employers to expect a 2:1 degree or higher for most graduate schemes (see here for information on schemes available to graduates with a 2.2).
  • In some sectors, such as finance, retail management and surveying, graduate schemes are common in the large companies. Other industries such as the charity sector, journalism and NGO fields run very few graduate schemes.
  • Application deadlines are often from September to December, almost a year before the start date, so you’ll need to start looking now if you’re in your final year.
  • Graduate schemes are competitive and only 12-15% of students get a place on one.  They tend to have a longer and more formal recruitment process. 
  • Salaries tend to be relatively high for graduate roles.

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Big isn’t always best. Why you should think about working for a small company

Often when I speak to students about looking for a job or work experience, they will mention applying to the large well-known companies. I can see why this happens so often:  because you have heard of them you already know a bit about what they do and can easily find their website online.

However these large companies actually only make up a tiny proportion of organisations, which means that by only looking at their vacancies you are missing out on a huge range of other exciting opportunties.

Where the jobs are

99% of all private sector businesses in the UK are actually SMEs – Small to Medium Enterprise. To be classed as an SME an organisation must have fewer than 250 employees and a turnover of less than €50m. This could encompass anything from a local high street law firm to a successful technology start-up. The majority of graduates will go on to work for these organisations, in entry-level or graduate roles.

While the big names may be attractive, think carefully about which types of company might offer the best experience. In smaller organisations you may have the opportunity to take on responsibility earlier, work closely with senior staff and gain exposure to how the business functions as a whole. There may also be a more flexible managment structure and a greater access to promotion prospects.

Generally SMEs will not have a massive budget for recruitment advertising (it is actually very expensive to promote a job on some of the bigger vacancy boards). This means that SMEs do not always advertise their vacancies, so you will need to be proactive in your job hunting technique. Consider networking and speculative applications for example.

How can I find them?

QMUL Careers & Enterprise Centre are working increasingly closely with local startups (new businesses), so keep an eye on QRecruit and QMULJobonline.

Try looking at industry news and updates. For example, if you are intersted in working in digital marketing or in creating apps, read online about these topics where company names will be mentioned who you can then contact. It is also a great way to start a conversation with a business, if you can say that you are familiar with and impressed by their work and are able to give specific examples.

You could also explore local science parks, incubator spaces and East London’s Tech City / Sillicon Roundabout.

Try using online business directories such as: www.applegate.co.uk, www.fsbonline.co.uk, www.londondirectory.co.uk, www.yell.com, as well as LinkedIn’s company search.

How do I apply?

Applying to a company that has no job officially advertised, you would make what is called a ‘speculative application’. Essentially, you have to do all the same things as applying for an advertised job, but you won’t have a job description to help you out. So in your CV and cover letter you need to be showing-off your knowledge of the organisation, saying why you particularly want to work for them and demonstrating what skills you have that would be an asset to their business. We’ll be posting soon with more tips on writing a speculative application, but in the meantime, you can come in and have a chat with us about how to find and apply to SMEs.

Why small businesses offer big opportunities

While large organisations often dominate the graduate recruitment arena, small/medium businesses have a lot to offer graduates, including fast promotion, increased responsibility and a varied work load.

This great piece from Guardian Careers explains why working for a smaller business can be a rewarding option for your career and why graduate schemes are not the only choice out there.

Does size matter? Jobs NOT in large companies – vacancies are OUT THERE!

It’s not all about big banks. There are plenty of other fish in the graduate hiring sea – they may not be as big, as prestigious, or hire as many people, but because they’re not very well-known, they may also offer a better ratio of applications to graduate places. After all, the large investment banks receive 82 applications per job.

This is how eFinancial Careers explain the current recruitment situation in their excellent blog post ‘4 financial services firms which you not be aware of, but which offer graduate training‘. The problem is, finding opportunities in smaller companies can be more difficult as a) they may not have the budgets to spend on massive advertising campaigns and b) they are less likely to be a well-known name, so even if you did come across them, you might not realise it…
But putting in that extra effort to find these companies now, can be well worth your while….

What can an SME (Small and Medium Enterprise) offer?

  • Although SME’s by definition employ fewer than 250 staff members, they make up a massive 99.9% of all businesses in the UK – making them a great place to find graduate opportunities.
  • Their selection processes tend to focus less on grades and more on the skills and work experience of their candidates.
  • Their selection processes are often simpler and less time-consuming. Vacancies become available throughout the year rather than the set dates of recruitment schemes.
  • As teams are generally smaller,  you are more likely to be a part of a wide range of projects – making your job more flexible as well as giving you an opportunity to build different skills.
  • Opportunities for promotion and to take on more responsibility often become available earlier on.
  • You will have more direct personal contact with senior management – not just another face in the crowd.

How to locate opportunities at SMEs

  • Approximately a third of SME’s rely on speculative applications from individuals who have researched the company and expressed their interest in working with them even though there no vacancies are advertised. Proactively seeking an employer can lead to a job.
  • Unlike large organisations, SME’s often advertise in local, regional or specialist publications. Many employers also use recruitment agencies or their own industry’s professional body.

Websites to get you started and give you some ideas:

After all that research – don’t waste it by sending a bad CV or speculative letter! Check out our guide to finding and applying for Unadvertised Jobs and remember you can always get feedback from a Careers Consultant.