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This is why SMEs should hire graduates

August 2019

Graduates can fill skills gaps, adapt to their role and help businesses grow on tight budgets, but many SMEs are missing out on this valuable talent

There's a huge demand among graduates for opportunities with small-to-medium sized enterprises (SMEs). In fact, 73% have a preference for this size employer.1 However, a look at HESA's Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education (DLHE) data shows that in 2016/17 only 30% actually found work with an SME.

Generally speaking, the bonds between universities and SMEs aren't as strong as their relationships with larger companies. As a result, smaller businesses aren't always aware of the value of hiring graduates, and many employment opportunities are lost amid the heavy promotion of graduate schemes.

Overlooking this pool of talent can mean missing out on the following benefits of hiring graduates.

They sponge up knowledge and produce good quality work

Motivated and hard-working employees

Graduates enter the labour market with a fresh set of skills, and they are ready to put them into practice and prove themselves. Prospects' Early Careers survey 2018 found that graduates actively seek SMEs because they provide a more 'intimate learning experience', 'room for more responsibilities' and 'offer more interaction between different areas of business'. These individuals are keen to take on any extra responsibility in the early stages of their career and their positive and can-do mindset is something you can capitalise on in future projects.

Kylie Cook, senior project consultant at Gradconsult who has worked with a number of SMEs and graduates, praises their ambitious attitude. 'A challenge for SMEs is that hiring can be very reactive, with new team members often brought in at the eleventh hour when the rest of the staff are at capacity.

'The plus side, however, is that grads hired through a robust recruitment process will typically perform well in a fast-paced SME environment. They sponge up knowledge and produce good quality work. Give them a project to lead on, though, and that's when they truly thrive.'

Limited experience can be advantageous

Although work experience is a desirable asset, hiring a graduate with little knowledge of the workplace can actually work to your advantage. They will enter the job with no embedded bad working habits that need rectifying, and they are to some extent a blank canvas for you to train and develop to meet the needs of your business.2 These graduates can take on challenges from a different angle and they won't be restricted to methods favoured by a previous employer.

SMEs often comment on how quickly graduates are able to adapt to their businesses and grow in their roles

They're good for growth on a budget

Hiring graduates could be the perfect option for SMEs that are looking to expand and develop their business while on a budget. University leavers with a small amount of work experience under their belt are willing to compromise on a high salary for more training opportunities to strengthen their skillset.3

The average graduate salary in 2016/17 was £22,399,4 so targeting graduates over experienced candidates, and investing in their learning, could prove to be a more cost-effective option that will reward your business in the long run. They are also more likely to be loyal and stick around for an employer who has helped them grow.

Flexibility and transferrable skills

Graduates can be an ideal solution for filling skills gaps. Emmie Studencki, employer engagement projects manager at Nottingham Trent University, highlights their adaptable skillset. 'In the UK labour market, our graduates often don't follow linear career paths, meaning there is a good chance they will choose professions not directly related to their degree. Because of this, it can sometimes mean thinking slightly outside the box and realising that mathematicians make great coders, or that a history graduate is the perfect marketer.

'It might even mean an engineer could be your top-performing project manager. Having worked with students and graduates for five years, I'm still impressed by their ability to be dynamic, adaptable and use their transferable skills alongside the technical to shine in whatever profession they choose.'

Gabi Binnie, project consultant at Gradconsult, also acknowledges the benefits of sourcing talent from disciplines not traditionally associated with a role. She says, 'SMEs often comment on how quickly graduates are able to adapt to their businesses and grow in their roles. Many graduates go on to work in SMEs in completely different fields to what they studied, and it is genuinely impressive watching them take the skills that they have learnt during their courses and apply them to totally different, and often incredibly challenging, circumstances. Coming from a different background or discipline helps them bring a fresh perspective and tonnes of new ideas to their organisations.'

Also in this series


1. Early Careers Survey, Luminate, 2018.

2. SMEs and Graduates, Graduate Recruitment Bureau.

3. Graduate recruitment - is it right for my small business?, Small Business, 2017.

4. Destinations of Leavers from Higher Education 2016/17, HESA, 2018.

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