Finding work in a small or medium size business (SME)

Between half and two thirds of all new job opportunities are generated by Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) employing 10-250 people. In 2018 that’s 16.3 million; 60% of all private sector employment in the UK.

Why work for a small business?

Small businesses are generally less well known than the large organisations but there are many opportunities in the small business sector which provide great opportunities to gain experience and start your graduate career.

Many SME owner managers will want to recruit graduates and will be keen to identify potential leaders and senior managers of the future who can take the company forward. This often applies to family owned companies who do not have anyone in the family to pass the business on to, or perhaps they need a fresh pair of eyes and hands to move the company forward.

Either way, small businesses are increasingly interested in recruiting graduates and will offer great opportunities to progress for those that are successful in joining them and show potential to take on responsibility and seize opportunities to impress.

The “pros” of working in a small business include:

  • Working more closely with senior managers
  • Better promotion prospects
  • Informal environments & less bureaucracy
  • Variety and early responsibility
  • Making a real contribution that is visible
  • Learn all aspects of running a business, inside and out
  • Getting involved in a number of projects, so you can be…
  • …Creative; everyone’s ideas count and are acted upon
  • It’s good training if you want to go it alone in the future
  • Greater job satisfaction and work-life balance is common
  • The opportunity to make an impact and be rewarded for it

The “cons” of working in a small business include:

  • No specific graduate schemes
  • More learning on-the-job rather than official training programme
  • Salaries are often lower
  • You may be the only graduate in the workforce
  • Fewer, younger people likely to be employed
  • Nobody recognises who you work for when you tell them
  • Early responsibilities may be daunting for some

What’s it like working for a small business?

Working for a small business can provide you with a unique insight into how a business is run and an opportunity to get involved in a variety of tasks and projects outside of the role you were initially recruited into. You may have more opportunity to work with colleagues across the business at all levels.

Some will flourish in this environment, enjoying the flexibility and the chance to work closely with the company’s senior managers – quite often this includes the Managing Director. Others will find the visibility this affords a little daunting, preferring to stick to the job description of their role and wanting to be part of a structured graduate training programme offered by large companies who are typically the global, corporate recruiters.

What do small businesses look for?

Most employers (whether small business owners or large, corporate businesses) commonly ask for these skills in their job / person specifications.

  • Commercial awareness – an understanding of what’s going on in business, and the ability to view situations from a business or commercial perspective and take advantage of it
  • Customer or client interaction –dealing with confidential information, delivering excellent customer service, developing a rapport with customers and colleagues
  • Organisational skills –time management, planning, prioritising, managing tasks effectively
  • Communication skills – this includes verbal/face-to-face and written communication, listening and understanding, dealing with people from all levels within your company
  • Problem solving – your ability to analyse information, make judgements, offer solutions and make decisions
  • Team working – being able to support and motivate others
  • Leadership – being able to motivate yourself, taking initiative and responsibility, delegating tasks effectively, managing budgets or projects, responsibility for purchasing goods/services, managing others (e.g., volunteers)
  • Ability to accept feedback – a willingness to learn good practice from more experienced colleagues, and the recognition of the need to accept feedback from customers and investors
  • Resilience – an ability to retain a focus when you face challenges

When applying for positions with SMEs (as with any other employer) consider which skills you have and where these have come from, whether part-time work, volunteering, extra-curricular activities or an internship or placement. Have examples ready to talk about. Find out more about skills.

Where to find opportunities

The Careers Service works with thousands of small businesses and advertises opportunities both within the UK and internationally. The following are great places to look for these opportunities:

  • CareerConnect advertises hundreds of small business vacancies each year.
  • Manchester Graduate Talent (MGT) helps final-year students and new graduates from The University of Manchester find jobs. Many MGT roles are within small businesses which can provide an excellent commercial experience upon which to build your career.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme helps businesses in the UK (including many small businesses) to innovate and grow. It does this by linking them with an academic or research organisation and a graduate. The scheme can last between 12 and 36 months, depending on what the project is and the needs of the business.

Find current KTP Associate opportunities at:

Apply speculatively

As small businesses do not usually recruit large numbers of employees, their recruitment practices tend to be a little more informal. They are often happy to receive speculative applications, you should consider networking to make contacts. Get advice on networking.

UK Small Business Directory an extensive list of businesses searchable via location and category search.