Job market

Start your career in an SME

It’s easy to see why so many students are drawn to the big graduate recruiters: prestige, salary, structured training and a fairly transparent (if sometimes rather lengthy) selection process. Competition for graduate schemes is intense, but the eye watering applicant to offer ratio doesn’t seem to deter students – quite the opposite. And there’s some powerful psychology at play: graduate schemes are synonymous with “success” – it takes a pretty confident and self-assured individual to resist their lure. Over the years I’ve seen scores of students who feel they should apply to big multinationals, and yet can’t articulate a convincing reason why beyond a sense of expectation – it’s what I’m supposed to do – or peer pressure – all my flatmates are applying.


Big graduate recruiters have a strong campus presence, which both reflects and sustains the relationship between students and recruiters. Companies wouldn’t waste time and money on high profile promotional activities if they didn’t work. Many of you will bag yourself a place on a grad scheme, but some won’t and for a sizeable minority such opportunities may not be the best way to realise your career aspirations. It may just be time to broaden your horizons – and job search – and start thinking about SMEs…

Ok, so what are SMEs?

This is just a handy acronym for small and medium sized enterprises, defined as independent companies employing fewer than 250 employees. And here’s an interesting fact: SMEs account for 99.9% of all private sector businesses in the UK and employ over 14 million people – pretty astonishing when you consider that SMEs are at best peripheral to, and at worst, completely absent from, many students’ job search. We have seen increased SME engagement with our employer services over the past year and it’s safe to say this is a becoming an important growth area for graduate recruitment. Not quite the same order of magnitude as the big corporates, but significant nonetheless. A quick search on myAdvantage today generated 38 immediate start vacancies, covering sectors as diverse as IT, marketing, media, finance and recruitment.

Perception v reality

A recent survey by, shed some light on student perceptions of SMEs and why there’s a general reluctance to view SMEs as a viable alternative to the blue chips. Of the questions asked, the following three are the most illuminating:

  1. Over a pretend 12 month period do think you would learn more working for an SME or a large company? 76% said they would learn more working for an SME.
  2. Which would you consider more of a risk – working for an SME or working for a large company? 73% felt it was higher risk to work for an SME.
  3. Do you think it’s more prestigious to work for an SME or a large company? 86% think it is more prestigious to work for a large company.

It’s hardly surprising that perception of risk (not without some foundation) precludes some of you from exploring the SME angle, but I can’t help wondering if the response to question three is rather more telling? Are you wedded to the dream of a ‘graduate job’ because it confers status, and signals to the world that you’ve arrived…and succeeded? There’s nothing wrong with that – we all like recognition, but in the current climate you may be artificially restricting your options if you concentrate your search exclusively on the big players. By waiting for that job offer (which may never come) you could miss out on the chance to get some real world experience and start building your career portfolio.

What are the benefits?

Now, I’m aware that anecdote doesn’t equal evidence but I do have a personal story worth sharing. An acquaintance of mine who graduated last year (Russell Group; 2;1) spent a good few months post-graduation applying for any and every corporate finance scheme. Number of job offers: 0. As reality dawned he started to widen his job search and – his words – “lower my sights”. He soon found a marketing job with a small digital media company. The salary and fringe benefits can’t compare with the big graduate recruiters, but the experience certainly can: he’s handling client accounts, organising corporate events and has played an active role at the negotiating table. Pretty impressive and guaranteed to wow future employers.

There are some real tangible benefits that come from working for an SME:

  • Smaller teams and a flatter organisational/management structure can create opportunities for you to shoulder early responsibility, manage projects and exercise greater influence over decision making.
  • Hands on experience. SMEs are not equipped to offer the same level of training and supervision as their larger rivals, so you may just have to get stuck in. A sure-fire way to become resourceful and resilient!
  • Roles in smaller organisations are often less rigid, so there’s more chance for you to ‘grow’ your job and get involved with other tasks and functions.

If you can work with minimal supervision, are flexible, pragmatic and have a healthy dose of common sense then you may just find the SME route worth considering.

Where to find SME vacancies

SMEs are operating within much tighter budget constraints than big corporates, so try to minimise risk with recruitment and selection. They advertise ‘as and when’ and don’t align with the graduate recruitment cycle. Don’t expect a lengthy recruitment process: typically you would apply with a CV and covering letter and may be offered an interview (and job!) within a week or so. You’ll need to be a little more resourceful and proactive in your job search, so make sure you:

  • Use myAdvantage vacancy search – you can set criteria by location, sector and start date.
  • Check the local and national press – keep your search area as broad as possible.
  • Search the UK Small Business Directory – search by county, then category e.g.  Bristol > Accountants in Bristol
  • Use your networks – face to face and online (see this: social media core medium for SME recruitment).
  • Check this – Guardian Jobs: SME jobs.
  • Keep up to date with business/industry/press – who’s expanding, diversifying? Any new start-ups?
  • Use Yell to help you find SMEs in your area.
  • Are you near any science or business parks? Why not send some speculative applications?
  • Consider Step if you’re looking for a shorter placement – this could be a good way in.

SMEs are keen to recruit bright, capable graduates who want to contribute from day one. You may initially lose out in the glamour and finance stakes, but you’ll gain valuable knowledge and experience. What better way to drive your career forward?

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