Working for a small business

Sabina Usher explains the benefits of this alternative career path

From inside the university bubble, it can often seem like working for the big corporate dogs is the only career option out there. Their champagne and cheese events, their branded wallcharts, pens and stress balls are all designed to imprint their names on your subconscious and perpetuate the myth that their graduate schemes are the only way to go after university.

Yet only 14 per cent of students join these schemes. So what do the other 86 per cent of graduates do? Here we discuss an alternative post-university career option and tackle some misconceptions about working in smaller businesses.

Ever thought about working for an SME?

SM- what? "SME" stands for small and medium-sized enterprises - that is, small meaning less than 50 employees and medium meaning less than 250 employees. Despite the fact that they account for 99.9 per cent of all private sector businesses in the UK, with an estimated £3.1 trillion in turnover at the beginning of 2012 according to the Federation of Small Businesses, many students and graduates still have no idea what an SME is. Yet the Association of Graduate Recruiters recently identified small businesses as the only sector that could absorb the increasing numbers of jobseeking graduates.

SMEs are crying out for graduates to add value to their businesses, and graduates are crying out for jobs when they leave university. So why aren't they finding each other? It seems that there's a lack of awareness of the great career opportunities at SMEs, which have a lot to offer motivated and talented graduates (see below for more details).

Job satisfaction

A survey by the TUC found that employees in small businesses are most satisfied at work. They were also found to be the most committed and loyal to their organisations, the most engaged by their employers, the most content with their freedom to choose their working patterns, and subjected far less to bullying, high levels of stress and long working hours.

Chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses, John Walker, says: "In terms of the way they treat their staff, small businesses consistently out perform their bigger competitors...Small business owners know that their greatest asset is their staff and they are more likely to treat them as individuals and recognise their needs. By having a committed and loyal workforce that has a say in how the organisation is run, the smallest businesses have a bigger advantage."

Why SMEs want you

The prevailing impression amongst students and graduates is that by virtue of their size, SMEs need to hire experienced staff. This is not necessarily true. Increasingly, SMEs are seeing the value in hiring graduates for their enthusiasm and fresh perspectives on the business.

Like all employers, they'll be looking for self-motivation, proactivity, a willingness to learn, an ability to solve problems (not just identify them), flexibility, initiative, good communication skills, teamwork and organisation. But in a smaller company these skills will be particularly important as you will need to use them constantly.

How do you find the right SME for you?

When it comes to attracting new employees, large companies tend to have bigger budgets, which equates to funds to publicise their schemes, more available roles and higher salaries. By contrast, small businesses tend not to have formalised graduate training schemes and are not tied to recruiting at certain times of the year. So vacancies could occur at any time and may be advertised in a range of different ways - for example, through the company's website, social media, jobs boards, or LinkedIn.

So what about working for an SME?

Graduate schemes are a good choice for some. If you know exactly what you want to do and that you want your career to start at a big firm, join one for access to formal training and the power of a big brand name behind you. But they're not for everyone and not the only option out there. Consider looking further afield for your post-university career options and turn to SMEs for great hands-on training and career progression, in any sector.

Remember that just because a job doesn't boast a huge salary, have a familiar brand behind it or a nice cosy induction period to "train" you up for the big, bad business world, it doesn't mean that it doesn't offer other benefits that could be just as valuable.

The benefits SMEs can offer you

Hands-on experience

Working in a small business provides the opportunity to get your ideas heard and to gain real hands-on experience. You're likely to be given greater responsibility than you would at a larger firm.

A broad role

Your role is likely to be wide-ranging and to involve experience in multiple areas of the business. This gives you the flexibility to get involved in a number of different tasks and functions that go beyond your job specification and title. Plus, you'll get a clear understanding of how an entire business functions, giving you even more valuable transferable knowledge and skills.

Good company culture

There will be fewer employees so the company culture is likely to be personal and friendly, with a greater chance to really get to know your colleagues. SMEs are also likely to be less bureaucratic and hierarchical than larger organisations, so you'll get more contact with senior members of the organisation who will give you great business training.

Individual impact

Smaller businesses are founded by individuals with entrepreneurial spirit. They usually encourage their employees to demonstrate the same drive, which is an opportunity for you to show your creativity and motivation to succeed by assessing what you can add to the business and putting your thoughts into action. You won't be lost in a large company and your ideas and work will have a direct impact on its success, which of course means you can advance quickly if you prove yourself.

My experience of working at an SME

George graduated from the University of Durham in 2012 and is now working in a marketing role at an exciting interactive gaming company.

"The obvious attraction [of working in an SME] is the wide-ranging experience which never subscribes to one specific cast. You're doing so many different things and each day is different.

The fact you're on an equal footing with the owners, with a flat hierarchy, is really refreshing. You're not treated as lower down the chain than them. It's a mutual relationship.

You get to interact with clients and senior members of staff from many different companies. I've had to talk to senior directors at our client companies. The responsibility is really liberating.

But what really makes the difference is the personal touch. You're not anonymous in a large company. My directors really take an interest in my personal development and whether I'm happy and growing as an employee. Having worked in two SMEs now, I honestly wouldn't look back to larger corporate organisations."

Sabina Usher is a history graduate from the University of York. She now works for Instant Impact, an internship recruitment agency that finds students and graduates paid internships and jobs with SMEs.