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It can sometimes feel difficult trying to find the right placement or graduate role for you. Large companies can offer attractive graduate schemes or placement programmes, but competition for them is often fierce. But don’t despair, there are plenty of opportunities out there – you just need to look in the right places. Don’t make a big mistake and ignore the opportunities offered at small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) – just because they aren’t household names, it doesn’t mean they can’t offer you exciting prospects.

What is an SME?

An SME is defined as a company that employs fewer than 250 people. In 2017, 5.7 million SMEs were recorded in the UK, which means there are a lot of options out there! New and upcoming businesses tend to be SMEs and they cover almost all business sectors, so whatever you are interested in, there should be something for you.

Why should I consider an SME?

There are lots of benefits of working at an SME. Here are just a few that you might find rewarding.

Embrace the culture
The culture of SMEs is one of the biggest differences between smaller and larger companies – you will be in a smaller work environment and, therefore, a smaller team. This means you should be able to integrate well into the team and get to grips with the staff and departments more quickly. Not only will this interconnection between the departments make communication more effective, but you will be able to get a better understanding of your role and feel more comfortable in it much more quickly.

Make an impact
Linking to the close-knit community at SMEs, working within a smaller company means you are more likely to get your hard work noticed. It will also be easier to have your voice heard – you could potentially be working with more senior members of staff in smaller companies which is a great opportunity to share your ideas and make a difference! This will give you job satisfaction – watching your ideas being implemented and being able to oversee projects through from start to finish will help you feel like you are making a real contribution to the business.

Broaden your skill-set
Due to the smaller team size, you are less likely to be restricted to a single role – you will probably have varied responsibilities, maybe even across different departments. For example, if you worked in a marketing role, you could find yourself carrying out work in digital, print, advertising, sales or event workstreams. Not only does this mean you get to pick up transferable skills, but being exposed to different workstreams will help you gain a better understanding of how the company works and which area you may want to specialise in.

Where could I be working?

There are SMEs in all types of sectors, but here are some of the most common areas that you may consider when looking for opportunities:

  • Arts and culture
  • Marketing, media and publishing
  • Manufacturing
  • Financial services
  • Legal services
  • Consultancies
  • Technology/software companies
  • Construction
  • Charities

How do I find opportunities at SMEs?

Finding opportunities at SMEs can sometimes be a bit trickier than finding them at larger companies, as they aren’t often marketed in the same way. Here are some tips to remember during your search.

  • SMEs often rely on recruitment agencies to fill their roles, so it may be worth looking at this route.
  • When searching for roles online, don’t focus on brand identity. This means, instead of searching for companies you know about, focus on searching for specific roles or industries e.g. search for ‘auditing roles in Birmingham’ rather than ‘Deloitte vacancies’. The trick is to use buzzwords – such as sectors and role types – rather than company names.
  • Larger companies often recruit far in advance for their graduate schemes and placement programmes. SMEs don’t – they usually recruit as and when they need to. They often advertise for roles in the Spring, which is ideal if you missed out on some of the early deadlines before Christmas!
  • Don’t dismiss internships – if you are looking for a graduate role, you may only be interested in securing a full-time, permanent position. However, some SMEs may offer internships with the potential for you to be kept on as a permanent member of staff if you impress as an intern. Make sure to read all the details when you see internship opportunities advertised or contact the employer to see if there is a possibility of you being considered for a permanent role at the end of the internship.
  • It’s also a good idea to apply speculatively to SMEs if they aren’t currently advertising specific roles, as they may invite you in for a chat or keep your CV on file for when a role does come up. However, it’s important that you outline your expectations in these speculative applications – say you are looking for paid placement opportunities for example. Don’t say you are willing to work for free, as some companies may exploit that.

Things to remember when searching for opportunities

While we do want you to take SMEs into consideration when searching for opportunities, make sure you take some time to think properly about whether an SME is the right company for you.

  • Think about whether you are happy having a varied role in a small team, or if you would prefer to have a more defined role within a larger team. It can be hard work having to juggle a variety of responsibilities, so think about what kind of work you would be happy with. 
  • How much training do you want? A graduate role at an SME for example won’t be structured in the same way as a larger graduate scheme – it will usually be an entry level role. Additionally, SMEs often focus on on-the-job learning as they often have fewer resources for training compared to larger companies.
  • Do background research about the company before applying – find out what type of work they do, what the work culture is like, what their values are etc. to see if it’s a company you would feel happy working for.
  • There is sometimes the option to negotiate your start date at an SME which you might not be able to do for larger companies. Therefore, if there is a role being advertised with a starting date that is before the end of your exams/you graduate, you may be able to speak to the employer to see if there is any flexibility with the start date.

If you want to find out more about the big opportunities an SME could offer you, we are here to help! Visit our dedicated webpage: www.aston.ac.uk/sme, join in the conversation on social media using the hashtag #AstonSMEs or come and speak to us in the Careers+Placements Centre. Don’t forget, you can also explore a range of placement and graduate opportunities at SMEs on Aston Futures.

Post Author: Harjap