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Hiring graduates: a guide for SMEs

August 2019

Graduate recruitment can be expensive, but there are many budget-friendly options for SMEs to promote their vacancies

Often SMEs form part of the 'hidden jobs market', so a single post on your website could limit the size of your applicant pool. HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data for 2016/17 shows that employer websites was the fifth most popular way for graduates to discover jobs at SMEs.

Finding graduates doesn't have to be a challenge, and there are many inexpensive ways to target university leavers. It is worth incorporating a few of these into your recruitment strategy to reach a wider audience.

1. Hire outside traditional recruitment windows

Careful timing of your recruitment campaigns can ensure you attract a good proportion of high-calibre candidates.

Graduate schemes are typically advertised in the autumn, with 81% of job offers by members of the Institute of Student Employers (ISE) made by Easter.1 However, a number of graduates will postpone their career search until their final exams are over so they can focus on achieving the best grades.2 Planning your recruitment campaigns after the Easter deadline could help you snap up post-graduation jobseekers.

Also, graduate schemes are highly competitive, meaning there's a huge group of skilled talent who narrowly missed out and are now pursuing other opportunities during the summer months.

Ask your own staff for referrals. This is an often neglected tactic but can potentially reveal a rich source of new hires

2. Advertise with Prospects

You can advertise your vacancies with Prospects, the UK's busiest graduate recruitment website. Prospects has over two million candidates coming to the site every month looking for jobs, and we have a team of dedicated account managers who work on tailored campaigns to ensure that we understand the need of the client and create tailored campaigns to attract the right candidates. We are also able to specifically target candidates who are looking for roles in specific sectors and locations.

3. Take advantage of social media

Social channels such as Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn are perfect for attracting talent while sticking to a budget.

However, it's wise to vary your content so you're not just posting adverts. Stand out from the crowd and capture people's attention with images and videos that reflect your company's ethos and provide a little insight into the working environment.3 Broadcast any achievements and exciting projects you're working on to encourage people to revisit your profile and seek out vacancies.

Ensure your brand design is consistent across all of your platforms, and post regularly to maintain engagement. Why not hire a recent graduate or work experience student to manage your social media accounts? Graduates today are digital natives, and their expertise will be valuable for creating a voice and marketing content to a younger audience.4

4. Use personal contacts

Internal advertising is a low-cost way to fill a position. Dan Hawes, co-founder and marketing director at the Graduate Recruitment Bureau, recommends 'ask[ing] your own staff for referrals. This is an often neglected tactic but can potentially reveal a rich source of new hires.'

Personal contacts was the second most common method used by graduates to find opportunities with SMEs in 2016/17 (20.2%).5 Offering a finder's fee encourages existing employees to share vacancies with their personal network. This approach is valuable as employees can put forward candidates who they know will be a good fit for your company's culture, and the role advertised.

Use the opportunity to meet students face to face as this will be help you understand your target market

5. Collaborate with universities

Partnering with universities is a great way to expose your business to graduates. Some HE providers actively encourage this relationship so they can offer work placements and employment opportunities to students.

Emmie Studencki, employer engagement projects manager at Nottingham Trent University, highlights how NTU benefits from SME partnerships. 'We spend a lot of time listening to the needs of businesses to ensure our graduates are work-ready through building vocational learning into our teaching. For example, we are currently working towards 100% of our courses having assessed work experience as part of the curriculum.'

Offering insight days and visiting universities to provide talks and presentations helps generate brand awareness among graduates. 'Use the opportunity to meet students face to face as this will be help you understand your target market,' says Dan Hawes. It's also valuable to make an impression among first-year students, as they will remember your business when they start job seeking in their third year.6

Often, careers teams will have a member dedicated to working with SMEs, so it's worth contacting them to discover what free resources you can use to advertise your vacancies.7

For example, Leeds Beckett University has a careers hub that allows employers to advertise vacancies for free so they can connect with their students and recent graduates and reach a talent pool of over 33,000.

Working with academic departments and can help them tailor their course content to teach graduates the skills your business requires, ensuring a pipeline of talent is maintained to fill future vacancies.8 This also helps tutors understand your organisation, so they can recommend suitable candidates that will fit in with your company's culture and values.9

6. Work with recruitment agencies

Phil Cookson, director at Creative Resource, says that 'SME's can benefit from getting involved with specialist recruitment companies in their sector'.

He adds, 'As a specialist creative and marketing recruiter, we run two events every year specifically to bring together graduates and the industry, in particular some of the smaller creative and marketing businesses seem to benefit the most from making graduates aware there are some great opportunities by looking beyond the 'big boys' in the sector, and we've helped create lots of graduate opportunities in SME's in the creative and marketing sector.'

Dan Hawes emphasises that working with recruitment experts is useful for 'building talent pipelines and creating a pool of students you can choose from when you need to hire. This strategy can take more time but is cost effective and the return on investment is high.'

Points to consider

  • Make sure your application forms are mobile optimised for easy application.10 Graduates hunting for jobs on the go will be put off by a slow and confusing process.
  • 'SME's brand messaging needs to be about what they can offer, not what they can't offer by not being a larger business with a graduate scheme', says Phil Cookson. 'SME's can often offer more variety in a graduate role, more experience quicker, more opportunity to get involved outside of your graduate job description and sometimes faster progression. They can also often offer more exposure to very senior, experienced people in their chosen field, again great for development if you're a graduate.'
  • Draw attention to any perks such as working from home, health plans and discounted gym memberships in your adverts.11 46% of graduates look for benefits and rewards in job adverts,12 and they can be a good compromise for SMEs who cannot match the competitive salaries offered by larger organisations.

Also in this series


  1. ISE Annual Student Recruitment Survey, ISE, 2018.
  2. SME Guide to Graduate Recruitment & Development, Gradconsult, 2016.
  3. An SME's guide to graduate recruitment, part 1, Hireserve, 2017.
  4. How to Hire Graduates for your Small Business, ByteStart.
  5. Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) 2016/17, HESA, 2018.
  6. How to Hire Graduates for your Small Business, ByteStart.
  7. SME Guide to Graduate Recruitment & Development, Gradconsult, 2016.
  8. Understanding Employers’ Graduate Recruitment and Selection Practices: Main report, Department for Business Innovation & Skills, 2015.
  9. Ibid.
  10. An SME's guide to graduate recruitment, part 1, Hireserve, 2017.
  11. Winning the war for GEN Z talent: How SMEs can attract the best graduates, Personnel Today, 2018.
  12. What graduates want from job adverts, Luminate, 2018.

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