Small business: A chance to make an early impact

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Finding the right staff is tricky no matter what business you are in. But for the small or medium sized enterprise (SME) it is doubly difficult.

“Half the problem is profile,” says Martyn Potter, HR consultancy manager at PKF, an accountant and business adviser. “When graduates come to the end of their degree course the first place they start looking is a university careers service – but only the large organisations with the glossy brochures will be represented there.

“A lot of graduates focus on large companies because they seem accessible.”

As an SME, getting your name known is not easy, though there are secondment programmes such as the Shell Technology Enterprise Programme (STEP) that match up SMEs and graduates for short-term projects that can lead to a longer term relationship. Your local Business Link, the government sponsored SME advisory service, may also run matching services and it may be worth cultivating your local university and offering work placements.

“It gives the business an opportunity to explore an area that they don’t otherwise have the time and resources to cover, and I have seen graduates who produce mind-blowing work and transform a company in quite advanced technical ways,” says Norman Mackel, chairman of the education and training committee at the Federation of Small Businesses.

He believes that that chance to make an impact is the main attraction of SMEs. “Most graduates want to be somewhere where they are noticed and in an SME that is much more likely to happen. I used to work for big business and quite frankly I never remembered any of the graduates who joined from the milk round; it took them a long time to percolate through the business structure. With an SME, you may well be reporting to the owner of the business, who has a keen interest in your success or failure.”

A small business may also offer a wider variety of experience, or the chance to experience rapid corporate growth. Jim Rogers, head of growth and strategic services at Grant Thornton, accountants and consultants, says: “A small software company, say, can offer a very exciting journey that will last perhaps five years at the most. But in that time you may have seen the company open offices in the US, negotiate cutting edge deals with major players, do a lot of strategic thinking. You could have learnt a lot. Some SMEs can offer that speed of change.”

Such a journey can be perfect for anyone thinking about starting up their own business since you get to experience at first hand many of the problems that are faced by entrepreneurs, and make excellent contacts. But there are all too obvious downsides to working for the wrong SME.

“My concern is that graduates are gravitating even more to big businesses because corporate and social responsibility is taking a much higher profile nowadays,” says Mr Rogers. “Graduates want to work for a company that they can feel good about.”

SMEs may also fail to appreciate the attraction of whole-of-life career packages, which include not just training but also carrots such as flexible working or gym membership. “Big companies attract not just through money but through the whole remuneration package,” says Mr Potter. “SMEs feel those packages are too expensive, or the company may be too small to be able to offer much flexibility.”

Training is the other important area. As more people go to university, a degree is seen more as a stepping stone to the next qualification and graduates are looking for an employer who can provide further training. SMEs may not have the resources to offer formal career training and a structured career path or staff levels that allow for time off.

“SMEs will be looking for people who will perform effectively early in their careers,” says Mr Mackel. “That comes down to attitude and personal capabilities. They want energy, enthusiasm, and responsiveness. I think most graduates write off SMEs too quickly; a small business is more likely to stretch a graduate, particularly if it is in a technical field.”

But an SME may also demand more commitment from its staff. “Small firms don’t have any slack,” says Mr Potter. “They don’t have the money to gamble on someone straight from college and some have had bad experiences with graduates who were too full of themselves and felt the world owed them a living.”

Such attitudes will cut little ice with owner-managers who have struggled to run their own businesses. Says Mr Rogers: “There is demand for bright graduates who can add value to the business but I think SMEs have a general cynicism about non-vocational degrees.”

Finding the right employer can be hard and many graduates go for the easy option of a big corporate name and find themselves on a career treadmill. But more research and initiative could mean a more satisfying start to working life.

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