A Big Fish in a Small Pond

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PricewaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte, Aldi, Tesco, HSBC. These are just some of the instantly-recognisable companies of this year’s Top 100 Graduate Employers. All of these firms have high annual turnovers with PwC boasting a £2.33 billion turnover at the end of the financial year, 2010. While many prospective graduates aim to gain a highly sought-after position in a top company, there is a growing demand for graduate employees in small businesses which tends to be overlooked.

This year a study of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) with a turnover of under £5 million highlighted that over half of these businesses in London hire graduates. This was followed by 40% in the South East and 36% in the North West. The study by Kingston University and Barclays Business conducted interviews with 1000 firms and one in five said that they would hire a graduate in the next year.

With the extremely high level of competition for graduate jobs (an average of 70 applicants per available position) and gloomy employment prospects with 10% of graduates being unable to find work last year, it is worth giving some thought to lower-profile businesses. Jobs with companies which are not household names receive, on average, three times fewer applications.

In fact working for a smaller company can provide positive opportunities which may be more difficult in larger businesses. If you enjoy taking ownership in your work, you are more likely to be able to work on individual projects or make a more decisive contribution in a smaller business than being swallowed up by a more experienced team in a larger company. Another advantage is that working for a small business creates a closer network between employees. While this could be difficult to penetrate at first, knowing your co-workers and managers well will give you a broader knowledge of the structure of the business and how your job relates to others’. Plus you can show all your colleagues just how brilliant you are and make a greater impact in your job role.

Sarah graduated earlier this year with a 2:1 degree in Geography. After moving back home she applied to be Head of Accounts at a local company which provides renewable energy through the anaerobic digestion of organic waste. While the job was not specifically aimed at graduates, she was hired above other applicants with more experience because she was fresh from education. Her job title might be Head of Accounts but her job role is far more diverse: ‘I raise invoices and deal with with the invoices that come in. I’m responsible for making sure people get paid and that we are paid too, as well as tax returns and VAT. But if there are any odd jobs that need doing, such as writing letters or sorting out a phone that doesn’t work, I tackle them.’

Sarah agrees about the advantages of working with a small group of people: ‘Because you get to know your boss, you aren’t just another face. It’s easier to get to know what is going on with the company and understand their aims and how you fit in.’

It is worth remembering also that small or medium businesses are often under a larger umbrella company. The British Sugar Group, for example, owns smaller companies that specialise in biofuel and seed coating. British Sugar is in turn owned by the group Associated Foods Ltd which has sales of £10.2 billion. A structure like this would enable you, as a graduate employee, to find your feet in the workplace and gain experience which could lead to a promotion to a position in a much larger business.

There are some disadvantages to working for a SME however. Smaller enterprises are not often able to provide a graduate training scheme so you will be required to learn ‘on the job’. Pay and benefits may be less, although the level of experience you will gain should make up for this and enable swifter promotion. You may also be the only graduate working for the business, but don’t let this put you off: in any workplace you will have to liaise with colleagues from different backgrounds and with varying levels of experience and, if you are the only graduate, you will be bringing a fresh perspective to your company.

Sarah sums up her experience positively: ‘Overall I have had a good experience – I don’t just do one job, I get to learn lots of different aspects. The company is growing and as it does I will have more to do and more responsibility. However it won’t feel like it has suddenly just all been put upon me. I have had time to learn and understand before things start getting too intense.’

So during this year’s Milkround, think beyond the Top 100 and find out how you could make an impact in a smaller business.

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