Big companies

You'll have heard of Accenture, Logica, Santander and Coca-cola - they aren't SMEs. You may have heard of them already and chances are you have seen them if you have begun your job search already. The reason you have seen them is that these companies spend millions making sure that you see them on campus, at careers service events and on online. They use a lot of different promotional tactics (brochures, stress balls, sweets) to make sure you know they recruit students.

Small Companies

However, you may not have heard of Express vending, Market Force, Bump PR and Reed & Mckay. These companies also recruit graduates year in year out in high numbers but I suspect you won't have heard of them but because like these and the thousands like them, they employ the vast majority of university leavers in the UK and based on the stats, it is likely most people in this room will end up working for them after uni. That's what we are here to do today... introduce you to a sector that you may not have thought about before, so let's start from the beginning, what is an SME and what role do they play in the British economy. Let's look at SMEs in context.

SME Definition

An SME is defined as a company with fewer than 250 employees. Simple.

Enterprises in UK (99.9%)

Astonishingly, companies with fewer than 250 employees make up 99.9% of businesses in the UK. So count all business in the UK and almost all are SMEs with just 0.1% representing large companies.

Share of employment in UK

Consequently, if SMEs make up most of UK business you'd expect them to employ lots of people and you'd be right, they employ 60% of the British workforce, with the remainder employed by large businesses and the public sector.

Proportion of GDP in UK

SMEs generate nearly half of all the UK's wealth. And what are these companies? A large proportion are in construction building, surveying, architecture, small scientific companies and retail - for example independent boutiques. So, we were surprised about how important SMEs are to the UK. They account for almost all business, employ almost 60% of the UK workforce and account for almost half of the UK's GDP. Given this type of profile, it would be logical to assume therefore that upon graduation, you are more likely to start your career with an SME that you don't currently know of, than a large big brand company that you do know. That's quite exciting. Knowing that somewhere out there is a small to medium sized company that maybe operates in an industry that you'd like to work in, within a role that may or may not be related to the degree you are currently studying, who will employ you and nurture your career. That SME is out there... you just have to find them but we shall get onto that in a bit.


So what are student and graduate perceptions of working for SMEs? conducted an online survey of over 300 students and graduates. The results are quite interesting.

  1. The first question we asked was "Do you know how a small & Medium sized Enterprise is defined?" 52% answered correctly with less than 250 employees and you can see here the breakdown of what the others answered with.
  2. The second question we asked was "Over a pretend 12 month period do you think you would learn more working for an SME or a large company?" A lot of people think that yes, they would learn more working in an SME with 76% saying so which is quite interesting but still almost a quarter suggesting they would learn more within a large company.
  3. With Q3, we asked "Which would you consider more of a risk - working for an SME or working for a large company?" 73% here have said they think working for an SME is much riskier than working for a large company.
  4. We then asked "Do you think your career prospects and opportunities are better with an SME or a large company?" So 76% think they would learn more in an SME but 64% here have suggested that their career prospects and opportunities are better off with a large company... Interesting.
  5. Lastly, the final question we asked was "Do you think its more prestigious to work for an SME or a large company?" and unsurprisingly, 86% think it is more prestigious to work for a large company.

So, just to quickly summarise, most of the people that completed the survey think that they would learn more working for an SME, is more of a risk, do not have as much career prospects and opportunities and believe SMEs are not prestigious to work for. There are clearly some negative connotations, there is no getting away from that, but that's why we are here. Getting a job with an SME might be your best chance of getting a job and we want to change your approach to SMEs which will improve your chances.

Cheerleader for SMEs

We think working for an SME is fantastic - we are one! These are the reasons why we think you should consider an SME:- Team - working in a team of 10 or 20 gives you a great sense of shared goals and team bond which is fantastic for job satisfaction and overall happiness. Being one of 20 gives you a great feeling compared to being one of 2,500 or even 25,000.

Range of responsibility - You are likely to be given a variety of different roles with sole responsibilities for certain projects and the outcome of them which as a result, means you will learn and develop a lot throughout your career.

Less hierarchy - Less hierarchy means decisions relating to your ideas get made quicker although that's not to say they will get accepted. So if you like an environment whereby the decision making process is faster and you see the rewards of your actions quicker, then you may want to consider working for an SME.

Speed - Decisions are generally quicker whilst developing ideas and projects are quicker too with things getting done faster.

Greater range of learning - Because there are fewer people within the organisation, if you want something done, you may end up doing it yourself! So there is an inherent learning on the job and you develop a more diverse range of day to day useful skills that will help you throughout your career. Day to day things like using word and powerpoint or simply planning your time. It's the difference between being able to do things yourself rather than getting someone to do it and so it's your chance to push and direct your career.

Entrepreneurial - Some people feel there is a greater realism working for an SME which people find rewarding and motivating. By realism we mean there is more exposure on how much revenue the company makes and overall wealth and profitability of the SME. People feel more engaged with the organisation and feel part of its development and success. Often in larger organisations it is easy to become detached and feeling like a cog in a machine. It's such a problem in some of these larger organisations that some employ engagement managers just to make sure employees feel more connected and part of the company.

Contribution - Probably one of the most important aspects of working for an SME is contribution. In most of the employee and job surveys we read, being able to feel you are making a meaningful contribution to the organisation is an important factor in job satisfaction. We would argue that making a meaningful contribution in a company of 20 feels much more rewarding than contribution of a team of 5,000.

What are SMEs looking for in the recruitment process?

  • De-risk the process
  • Retention
  • Investment
  • Getting up to speed

These issues facing recruitment for SMEs are identical to those of a large company. Everyone is looking for what they consider the best talent. There are lots of definitions as to what the best talent is but in general terms a graduate who is commercially aware and industry aware, has some suitable skills and experience gained either at uni or elsewhere with enthusiasm, good communication skills and team working skills and you're pretty much three quarters of the way there. SMEs are trying to attract these people in the same way large organisations do. However, there are some factors which are particularly prevalent to SMEs when compared to large companies. SMEs are more actively aware of de-risking the recruitment process. The risk being the time and cost involved in the process with the prospect of not employing anyone. As the head count of an SME might be 10, it would make sense that recruiting from to 11 employees puts more of a drain on resources than recruiting from 500 to 501. SMEs will be more attracted to look at requirements mentioned which don't require much time or cost.

Retention. SMEs are also actively aware of the requirement to retain recruits. There is no point recruiting an employee, introducing them over a number of days or weeks, investing in equipment only for that person to leave after three months. SMEs will pay special consideration to recruiting with a view to retaining their employee.

Up to speed time. Small companies can't afford to carry an employees everyone needs to be making a valid contribution. The time a new recruit gets up to speed is critical. SMEs don't want to spend 6 months getting you into a position to do your job. Making a valid contribution quickly which in SMEs case will likely be to increase revenue or reduce cost is vitally important.

Tailoring your message

So briefly, how can you tailor you message to address some of these issues that SMEs face in order to give yourself the best chance? These suggestions are in addition to the advice you get from your careers service about things like interview techniques etc. Bear in mind that the SME recruiter might be part-time or an HR person, make it easy for them. They don't have much time and don't want to crawl through your CV matching your skills and requirements.

In a cover letter, list out the company requirements and then state how your skills match their requirements. For instance, it might be that the potential role requires a good communicator, provide evidence of this. The HR person will appreciate you have done this and even if you can't match all the requirements, the fact that you have used this approach will improve your chances over someone who possesses all the requirements but has failed to identify them in a cover letter or within their CV.

What are SMEs in particular looking for compared to a large company?

First thing to bear in mind is that a smaller organisation might not have a specific responsibility for recruitment. It might be covered by the HR department and therefore it won't be their full time role. What this means is there availability might be a bit less frequent, decisions might be slower and they also might use a recruitment agency to do their initial attraction for the role. Reduce costs of employing you

Look to mitigate some of the costs of employing you. If the salary range is £18-22K, maybe accept the lower salary level in the interest of getting that job. If you are a commodity and you all have similar skills things like cost might be a deciding factor in a final decision. Be available immediately

Be available immediately, offer if you're not. It's unlikely that an SME will recruit for starting in 3 or 6 months time, they don't tend to plan that far in advance. In many cases, they don't respond to marketing conditions now and are able to react quickly. This means they are looking to fulfil a need now. If you are interviewing now because you want to start in 6 months time, an SME won't wait.

Job search strategy

Think local

Knowing that it represents less risk to employ someone locally for an SME it might make sense for an SME to advertise locally rather than use national media or websites. That in mind, start to think outside the box about your job search. Look in your local press, but also why not other town and cities local press which can be done on the web such as this particular example. Here I simply typed in "marketing trainee" into the job section of the online version of the paper, in this case, the Yorkshire post but don't necessarily use the keyword "graduate job". Likewise, think about using job centres in areas not associated with yours. Using these for SMEs is free so sometimes it's sometimes the first place they will try as a toe in the water, to see if there is any response. Try your local job centre but also others regionally such as this jobcentre powered Direct gov site which enables you to search by postcodes and general locations. But also look in jobs but also industry news which could prove useful. Don't do this exclusively but do in conjunction with your job search... try it. Finally and we can't resist this, visit to see all our latest SME vacancies.

Differentiate yourself

What next? Assuming you've made your application, after 2 or 3 days follow it up with a call, make it easy for the employer to identify you from the others. Show your enthusiasm and that you care, make contact with the individual or team responsible for recruitment just even to check they received your application. It's your chance to make a good differentiates you from everyone else and gives you an edge.

Demonstrate flexibility and enthusiasm

As we mentioned, one of the things which characterised an SME culture is flexibility and enthusiasm. We'd suggest you mirror these characteristics in interviews. Try and communicate enthusiasm through what you say, how you're saying it and adapt if things change in the role or the role changes slightly from the first interview. Being able to adapt quickly to new circumstances and be able to develop without issues is a really useful and valuable characteristic and demonstrates you can handle anything that is thrown at you.

Demonstrate commitment

Demonstrate evidence of commitment by removing elements of your CV which show lots of jobs in the past 6-12 months. Even if they are part time bar jobs etc. It is better they are not there at all rather than facilitating the question. "Moved about a bit haven't they". People make quite substantial decisions on CV's if they see 10 employers in 12 months, that rings alarm bells. Don't give them the opportunity. Commute distance is another hot point if you have a long commute or you don't live within travel distance to the role. Say you are moving to the job location with friends so the commute won't be an option. It doesn't matter how determined you are to travel to work, in the eyes of an employer someone who lives 20 mins away from the office is more attractive than someone who lives 1hr and a half away. Get up to speed. Show that you understand the issues broadly, show you are enthusiastic but not desperate. Even mention that you want to get up to speed and start contributing. This shows you understand what is going to be required from you and the issues faced in an SME. You will empathise with them and if you are asked in your interview "what do you think you will be doing in your first three months" don't make all the answers the responsibility of the company. Show them after a few weeks you'll be getting into it and showing what you can do!


SMEs make up the majority of UK business and employ the majority of the UK workforce. We can make a reasonable assumption that you are likely to be employed by an SME upon graduation or maybe afterwards. Obviously, that is a general assumption and not a fact! SMEs don't have big recruitment budgets of large organisations or the traditional training schemes so it's unlikely you will already know who they are so you're going to have to find them. We'd suggest you find them by looking in areas where it is cheaper to advertise such as the job centre, trade press and local press. SMEs are less likely to have dedicated HR or recruitment managers so we discussed tips and techniques to help you stand out from the crowd and make it easy for the person responsible for recruiting to shortlist you.