Attracted by high salaries and organisational reputation, many graduates are drawn to large, well-known employers. However, small, local businesses can provide a wealth of opportunities for those starting out in their careers
'Because small businesses don't usually run high-profile recruitment campaigns or attend careers fairs, it's easy to focus on the big name graduate recruiters and miss the many exciting opportunities that are available at small organisations,' says Richard Finch, communications officer for the careers and employability service at the University of Liverpool.
While large employers may be able to offer permanent work to interns, there are still many reasons to find an internship, work placement or graduate job with a small business. For example, in a small business you'll enjoy early responsibility, gain experience working across a number of 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.
'Small businesses are the often hidden home to a huge volume and range of career opportunities for students and graduates,' adds Tracey Innes, head of the Careers and Employability Service at the University of Aberdeen. 'While these opportunities may not be badged as a student placement or graduate programme, focusing on identifying and targeting small businesses in the sector and professional areas you are interested in can give you an ideal start to your career.'
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 and taking ownership of more tasks significantly boosts your skillset.
'Other advantages of working for an SME include early responsibility and autonomy, early promotion opportunities and more frequent access to senior managers,' explains Richard. 'SMEs offer a greater sense of team camaraderie through the shared experience of small enterprise.'
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.
Is working for a small business right for me?
'If you're wondering whether working for an SME would be right for you, then take some time to think about what you’re looking for in a graduate role, and the environment in which you'd like to work,' advises Richard. 'It might also help to take a look at the company website and any social media pages, as well as any reviews from current or previous employees that you can find. All of these could help in finding a business that best aligns to you.'
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 a 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.
There are some drawbacks to SMEs. 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 if you work in a small team ad starting salaries are often lower than at big organisations.
More often than not at a small business you're required to be a jack-of-all-trades - turning 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.
'In your decision making think about 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 crucially, whether the vision, mission and objectives of the business aligns with your career aspirations,' says Tracey.
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 good and funding sources secure you could be set for an exciting career climbing the ladder to the top of the (growing) business.
'Flexibility, confidence and resilience are likely to be required to make the best success of working for a start-up,' says Tracey.
However, 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 your need for career stability - this can be less certain in the early stages of a start-up. On the other hand you'll be at the heart of positively impacting the successful establishment of a business,' adds Tracey.
However, Richard points out 'even if you the experience doesn't last, this can be a great foundation to your career.'
How do I apply?
'SMEs often hire using more traditional applications and interviews, and do so on a less industrial scale,' says Richard. 'They frequently fill vacancies through networking, their own website, or responding to speculative applications so it's important that you build your connections and tap into the hidden job market.'
Making speculative applications is therefore key to gaining work experience and jobs. Research the companies that interest you, discovering 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. 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.
Find out more
- Search graduate jobs in business, consulting and management.
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