Work experience with a small business

Dominic Claeys-Jackson, Editor
September, 2015

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can provide students with fantastic practical experience, so don't discount them when it comes to work placements

They are often overlooked, but small businesses are great for allowing interns to act on their own initiative and develop their own way of working. What's more, they provide superb opportunities for networking.

If you're a confident, creative and motivated team player who is prepared to get stuck in, you could quickly become an asset at an SME.

Creativity and a can-do attitude will make you a valuable addition as an intern, especially in a small team


You're likely to have much greater freedom and responsibility from the outset, improving your chances of making important decisions and impacting operations. Handling important projects and seeing your ideas implemented will make you feel that you're truly contributing and making an impression.

While larger organisations usually offer placements with a narrow remit, work within an SME is often more varied - and can therefore be much more interesting. Indeed, the fact that you'll have several functions and take ownership of more tasks significantly boosts your skillset and will greatly impress graduate employers. Alternatively, it may lead to permanent employment at the company.

Lesley Mckay, business relations team manager at the University of Glasgow's careers service, says that students working within SMEs see first-hand how the many different aspects of business fit together. 'In many cases, work experience students also have the advantage of daily contact with the owner or manager, something less common in a larger company,' she adds.

This close-knit intimacy - not to mention the more relaxed, informal and personable atmosphere - is another underappreciated advantage. Teams tend to be smaller, giving you the opportunity to form real bonds with others. SMEs are also likely to offer greater flexibility regarding your working hours and level of involvement.


There are, however, some clear disadvantages. A lack of training or professional development can be one drawback, while SMEs that don't have dedicated human resources (HR) departments may suffer from structural issues. This can lead to administrative problems surrounding, for example, pay and holidays. Not having the opportunity to work within a larger team is another potential pitfall.

Lesley adds that SMEs aren't usually ideal for interns requiring plenty of direction. 'Some small businesses may not have taken on a student before, so students might be expected to know some things that they don't,' she admits. 'They're often thrown in at the deep end.'

Applying for work experience with an SME

There are two key routes to gaining work experience with a small business - speculative applications and careers services.

Making speculative applications is recommended, as many SMEs don't formally advertise their placement opportunities. Research the companies that interest you, discovering the ways in which your skills and personality suits them. This will help you to appear focused and confident when it comes to making your application.

Openings can be found through your university careers service. The University of Glasgow, for example, offers a dedicated internship programme called The Internship Hub that works with hundreds of small businesses to provide paid internships to students.

The University of Stirling, meanwhile, actively promotes paid internship opportunities with SMEs through its Santander-sponsored Stirling Internship Programme and providers include ScotGrad, Adopt-an-Intern, Bright Green Placements and Third Sector Internships Scotland (TSIS).

'We're keen for our students to gain work experience with small businesses, charities and social enterprises,' says Jo Speed, career development adviser.

'We also deliver accredited work experience and work-based learning modules in a variety of subject areas, including law, sport, social work and journalism. These include 30-hour volunteering projects with small businesses, charities and social enterprises.'

One organisation that the University of Stirling works with is SYHA Youth Hostelling Scotland. 'An internship is a valuable taster of working life, giving students and graduates the chance to broaden their experience,' says Jane Mackie, marketing manager. 'It can often help to decide future career paths and perhaps open new avenues.

'It helps to have a genuine interest in the organisation that you're applying to and some relevance to your studies. However, creativity and a can-do attitude will make you a valuable addition as an intern, especially in a small team.'