Working for a small business

Daniel Higginbotham, Editor
September, 2020

With small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) accounting for more than 99% of all UK businesses there's plenty of opportunity to work for an SME

While large employers may be able to offer permanent work to interns, 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 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.

Why work for a small business?

'Working within a small business is often a very positive start for students,' says Michelle Everitt, head of careers and employability at the University of Bedfordshire.

You're likely to have greater responsibility than at larger organisations, improving your chances of making important decisions and influencing operations. Handling projects and seeing your ideas implemented will make you feel that you're making a genuine impact on the business.

'It's often easier to see how what you're doing is contributing to the company's success. You will stand out and your influence is more likely to be noticed,' says Diane Appleton, head of careers and employability at the University of Chester.

Work within SMEs is also more varied than at larger organisations. Experiencing many business functions and taking ownership of more tasks significantly boosts your skillset.

'In a small company you can, and often have to, get involved with work that other colleagues are doing and work on different projects. This contributes massively to your development,' adds Diane.

'There is often a wealth of opportunities under one roof and individuals within a small business are regularly given the opportunity to experience different areas to gain skills and knowledge,' Michelle agrees.

If you've worked for the company on work placement during your degree, you may even be taken on by them once you graduate. 'Small businesses are less bureaucratic and have little hierarchy. As you're likely to have direct contact with managers, directors or owners, you can get your ideas heard and acted on,' explains Diane.

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 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,' says Diane.

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

One drawback of SMEs is their general lack of dedicated human resources (HR) departments, which can lead to administrative obstacles - surrounding pay and holidays, for instance. Not having the opportunity to work within a larger team is another potential pitfall, and while it's likely you'll have more flexibility in your role at a small business, your growth may be limited.

It's likely you'll also encounter these pros and cons if you go self-employed.

How do I apply?

'Many roles are not advertised as it's expensive to do so. SMEs tend to recruit through informal channels such as networking, engagement with careers services and word-of-mouth recommendations,' Michelle says.

Making speculative applications is therefore key to gaining work experience. 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.

Find out more

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