How employing graduates can bring big rewards to small firms

University graduates

Recent graduates looking for jobs don't all necessarily want to work for large corporates in London. Mark Williams asks why your small business should be eager to offer them a start

Despite some 300,000 people graduating from UK universities each year, historically, relatively few of them have ended up working for one of the nation's 5.4m small firms. But things are changing.

Julia Mitchell

"There's still a strong pull to large corporates, but students are increasingly looking at other options," says Julia Mitchell (pictured right), head of employer services at the University of Bristol Careers Service.

"In 2015, the number of graduates that started their own business grew by 34% to 4,603 and about a third of our graduates went on to work for a small and medium-sized enterprise. A 2013 joint study by GTI Media and Step found that 87% of undergraduates were 'willing' or 'very willing' to start their career with a smaller employer."

Mitchell says large employers are highly organised, seasoned recruiters that offer structured, well-marketed graduate training programmes, but smaller firms can provide the opportunity for graduates to gain more responsibility early on. "Graduates can soon get to know the business inside out from working in many areas, which from the beginning gives them the opportunity to increase their skills and shine. This is very different from being one of 50 graduates recruited onto a set programme tied to specific areas of a large business."

Cost consideration

Stuart JohnsonExpectations of higher costs might deter many small firms from employing graduates, with the belief that they are likely to want higher wages and much more training. "Some may need a lot of training at first, but they're likely to pick things up quickly, be keen to succeed and want more responsibility," counters Stuart Johnson (pictured right), director of the University of Bristol Careers Service.

"Many will have already gained experience from workplace internships and work during holidays and weekends, which will have given them a professional approach to work. Many won't expect the same salaries and perks that some large employers offer - instead they're focused on the other benefits working for a small business can bring."

Johnson says getting your job advert and interview process right can help you to avoid recruiting graduates who aren't right for your needs.

"Working with small firms on our internship scheme, we often find they're unsure about how to market their roles to graduates. We help them so that graduates understand the role and what's expected of them. Another way to increase your chances of finding the right graduate is to employ paid interns. Many small firms we work with have kept interns on in permanent roles after they have graduated."

Business benefits

Universities spend a lot of time ensuring that graduates are employable, Johnson says, but leaving their specific academic knowledge aside, what added value do they bring? "The academic programme teaches students to research, manage their time and think critically. It also develops their analytical skills to enable them to think around issues and the consequences of actions.

"University careers services offer a range of initiatives to develop students' transferable skills, which boosts commercial awareness, communication skills, teamwork and other things. The result is highly capable and confident people who can take on responsibility and quickly develop their skills."

As Mitchell points out, graduates can also bring a fresh perspective, which can help you to identify where your business can improve and maybe even tap into new opportunities. She adds: "Graduates are usually highly driven and focused, they want to prove their worth. Their enthusiasm can be infectious – it can lift the rest of your team."

Filling vacancies

If your small business has a graduate vacancy, Mitchell recommends you first contact your local university's careers service. "They'll ask you about the role and what skills and qualifications you're looking for. They can advise you on the best methods and times to advertise. Their established channels enable them to alert students and graduates to suitable new roles and most offer a free vacancy advertising service.

"We've been working with SMEs a lot in recent years and have noticed that many just don't understand the graduate market. The careers service can help with your recruitment needs and point you in the direction of other useful contacts."

Most students now gain work experience before they graduate, which means coming to work for your business shouldn't prove too daunting, says Johnson. "But - as with other new employees - your induction process must be good if graduates are to quickly get to know more about your business and its people, get to grips with their role and start to contribute."

Communication matters

Offering a stimulating, genuinely graduate-level job with responsibility and sufficiently attractive wages can ensure that graduates stay with your business and not just use it as a stepping stone to other things. "The communication also has to be good," stresses Johnson.

"They need to know your door is always open and regular informal chats will help you to find out how they think they're getting on. Appraisals can identify any problems, as well as any necessary training. They're also a good way of keeping up with someone's career ambitions – and deciding whether your business can fulfil them," he concludes.

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