While big-name companies offer high salaries and structured career paths small businesses can provide a wealth of opportunities. To tap into these hidden jobs all you have to do is think outside the box…

It's easy to overlook the exciting opportunities that small, local businesses can offer. 'Lack of awareness is the number one reason this happens,' explains Katie Martin, student enterprise and SME development manager at the University of Bristol. 'Often students and graduates are unaware of the opportunities within smaller organisations or may discount them because they haven't heard of the company.'

Small businesses don't typically have the funds or resources to run high-profile recruitment campaigns or attend careers events, but you'll be doing your career a disservice if you only focus your efforts on large, well-known employers.

While large organisations may be able to offer higher salaries to candidates, there are still many reasons to find an internshipwork placement or graduate job with a small business. For example, in a small business you'll enjoy early responsibility, gain experience working across several functions and have more chance to engage with senior colleagues. The opportunities to gain skills while working for an SME or small business far outweigh the challenges you'll encounter when looking for opportunities.

What is an SME?

An SME is a micro, small or medium sized enterprise that has less than 10, 50 or 250 employees respectively. In the UK SMEs account for 99% of all businesses, meaning that they are a key driver for economic growth. Millions of people work for such companies, and you could be one of them.

Why work for a small business?

Starting your career within a small business often proves to be a positive move for graduates.

They're usually less bureaucratic and have little hierarchy meaning you can make a real impact from day one.

The work provided by SMEs is more varied than at larger organisations and experiencing many business functions significantly boosts your skillset, a sentiment that Katie echo's 'being part of a small team often involves wearing many hats, which can help you to quickly develop a range of skills, knowledge and confidence, which can be the springboard to a fulfilling career.'

Early responsibility and autonomy, rapid promotion and more frequent access to senior managers are some of the other advantages of working for an SME.

Getting stuck in and handling big projects will make you feel like you're making a genuine contribution to the business. Working within a small business it's also easier to see how what you're doing is contributing to the company's success.

'Many start-ups and small businesses are founded with an awareness of their impact on the world at their core, so working for an organisation such as this can enable you to work somewhere where your values align closely with theirs,' adds Katie.

Is working for a small business right for me?

SMEs are ideal for those with initiative who require little direction. You'll be thrown in at the deep end and might be expected to know things you don't, and for this reason you'll need to be an adept problem solver and quick learner.

If you like the idea of working in a small team, having to be flexible and adaptable and being more visible in the workplace, then the SME route may be for you.

You'll also require resilience, initiative and the ability to self-motivate.

While there are lots of advantages to working for a small business, it's only fair to point out that there are also some drawbacks. For example, while it's likely you'll have more flexibility in your role at a small business, your growth may be limited. Training opportunities may be restricted due to funding, opportunities for promotion may be slim - teams are usually small leading to bottleneck situations and starting salaries are often lower than at big organisations.

Often at a small business you're required to turn your hand to different functions as required. This can sometimes mean forfeiting specialising and working in a particular area of interest, as you're needed across the business. Not having the opportunity to work within a larger team, with a variety of people is another potential pitfall. It's likely you'll also encounter these pros and cons if you go self-employed.

If you're still wondering whether working for an SME is right for you think about what you're looking for in a graduate role, and the environment in which you'd like to work. 'As with anything, your decision should be based on your needs,' advises Katie. 'What is it you value? What experience and skills are you looking to gain?'

Look at the company website and any social media pages, as well as any reviews from current or previous employees. Also consider whether you have the self-motivation and drive to create your own career development pathway, whether the business you are considering has a culture you would feel at home in and whether the vision, mission and objectives of the business aligns with your career aspirations.

'Do your research and keep an open mind, working for a small business can lead to big opportunities,' says Katie.

Should I consider working for a start-up?

A start-up is a company that is in the initial stages of getting off the ground. Often started and funded by entrepreneurs who want to develop and sell a product or service, there are pros and cons to working for businesses of this kind.

Getting involved in a business in these early stages could lead to a fair amount of responsibility; you could even create a role for yourself - one that fits your skillset. If the idea is solid, the business plan is good, and the funding source is secure you could be set for a career climbing the ladder to the top of the (growing) business.

'Start-ups can be an exciting environment to work in but that’s not to say they're without their challenges,' cautions Katie. It's important to acknowledge that the majority of start-ups fail within the first couple of years, which could lead you down the path of having to search for another job.

Consider how highly you value career stability. Is this more important than positively impacting the successful establishment of a business? If yes, then perhaps consider working for a well-established small business instead. If you think it's worth the risk, go for it. Even if your time at a start-up doesn't last the skills and experience you gain will provide a great foundation to your career.

How do I apply?

If you want to tap into this hidden jobs market it's important to note that SMEs frequently fill vacancies through networking, word of mouth, applications on their own website, or through speculative applications.

When making a speculative application research the companies that interest you to discover ways in which your skills and personality suits them. Your careers service can help with this.

Openings can also be found through your university. Most have contacts with smaller businesses that can offer short-term placements with a view to longer-term opportunities. 

Social media is also a useful tool when uncovering vacancies so do some research to discover if the small business you're interested in has a social media presence. Most will as it's a brilliant free marketing tool for their business. Connect with and follow their channels but keep all interactions professional.

Once you’ve uncovered vacancies it’s likely you’ll apply with a CV and cover letter. ‘Small businesses often recruit for personality and attitude. Bringing the wrong person into a small business can have a huge impact, so it is important to be genuine, honest, and open to learning from challenges - we hear from businesses a lot that they are looking for lifelong learners,’ says Katie.

If your initial application is successful, you’ll attend an interview. Small, local or start-up businesses rarely have the budget to support things such as assessment days but you may still be asked to complete an interview test or exercise.

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