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How to prepare graduates for jobs with SMEs

March 2019

These tips from HelloGrads founder Sophie Phillipson will help you to identify which graduates are best suited to working for an SME and how to support them to secure their first role in this 'hidden' jobs market

Three-quarters of graduate jobs in the UK are offered by companies with fewer than 250 employees1 and a 2018 study found 96% of the business landscape was made of microbusinesses with fewer than 10 employees.2

Yet budget constraints mean small businesses may rely on recommendations, referrals and local online jobs boards to find new talent rather than offering structured graduate schemes or paying recruiters' fees. This means there's a hidden jobs market, just waiting to be tapped.

For graduates, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) can be ideal for learning the ropes and progressing quickly up the ladder. LinkedIn's 2016 Work Satisfaction Survey found that almost half (45%) of professionals working for SMEs were 'very' or 'completely' fulfilled at work.3 They are also some of the most loyal employees: 3 in 10 planned to remain with their current employer for the rest of their working lives.

Small businesses care about their dynamic and hire on good personality fit, among other things

Which graduates will flourish in an SME?

Those on graduate schemes typically adhere to a structured programme for a couple of years, which dictates their salary and status. But smaller enterprises usually offer more autonomy, and graduates find themselves writing their own job description as they pick up new tasks and take on new responsibilities.

What smaller companies may lack in structured training or managerial support, they make up for in opportunities. Hands-on experience, a wider variety of responsibilities and interaction with more areas of the organisation all give recruits a real understanding of how businesses function. Plus, learning on the job presents constant challenges and helps graduates to quickly develop problem-solving skills.

There are also cultural benefits. Many SMEs have flat structures, and a close-knit team of like-minded people with shared values. In short, work life can be really fun, and team bonding is encouraged. When there are fewer people in the mix, getting along with one another is crucial.

Graduates who thrive on structure and organisation with set procedures and a clearly defined career path are well-suited to corporate life. But an SME can offer a more flexible, autonomous environment with fewer rules and regulations, an openness to new ways of working, and the freedom for each recruit to shape their own role and create their own career opportunities. Whether or not the business is growing fast, it will be ever-changing, so it's likely that individual roles will too.

Wherever graduates choose to go, they should remember that they aren't making a lifetime commitment. Different sizes of business appeal at different stages in life and it's easy to change from one to the other to see which suits them best.

The best candidates for SMEs are self-starters. Although recruits will have the chance to shine, it's very much down to them. They will need to be proactive and keen to take on responsibility. They'll most likely be independent thinkers, possibly with an entrepreneurial spirit and unafraid of risk or uncertainty.

How can graduates tap the 'hidden' jobs market?

Most universities have not developed close relationships with SMEs - with the exception of some hyper-local employers - preferring to focus on a smaller number of recruiters and brands that hire graduates annually and can work within the traditional system of milk rounds, work placements and graduate programmes.

That means students lack awareness of job opportunities that exist. Here are six top tips to help students and graduates to tap the hidden jobs market:

  1. Students should start scoping out the small business scene before they leave university. The Institute of Directors offers student memberships that give career-driven and business-minded students access to a mentoring panel, networking events, an online community, and work placements.
  2. Job vacancies in SMEs could appear on the company blog and on social media, rather than a dedicated jobs page on the website - so they should start following the companies that they'd like to work for.
  3. Unlike the set application procedure for graduate schemes, SMEs hire when they need people, meaning opportunities can arise at any time of the year they. Graduates must be proactive and make direct approaches.
  4. Direct approaches need to be carefully crafted. Covering emails need to be grammatically perfect and appropriately angled. Graduates should take a lead from the company's website. Is the copy corporate, informal or hilariously funny? The email should reflect that tone.
  5. All good speculative applications should explain why they want to work for that company and the skills, experience and enthusiasm they'd bring with them. Small businesses, that may be working with the same few people every day, care about their dynamic and hire on good personality fit, among other things, so this should shine through in the application.
  6. Graduates should make sure their LinkedIn profile is up to scratch as this platform can be used to approach SME owners through InMail and potentially to find roles, too. Businesses of all sizes advertise vacancies on LinkedIn as it can be a relatively inexpensive way to find candidates.


Find out more about HelloGrads

  1. Life in the graduate job market isn't as bad as you think, The Guardian, 2013.
  2. UK Small Business Statistics, FSB, 2018.
  3. LinkedIn exclusive: Why SMEs have the advantage when it comes to talent, Real Business, 2016.

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