Working for a Small or Medium Sized Enterprise (SME)

Small to medium-sized enterprises, or SMEs represent the fastest growing sector of the economy. According to the Enterprise Directorate, in the UK as a whole, SMEs account for over half of employment (58.7%). For the South West, Wales and Northern Ireland, this figure exceeds 70%.

What is an SME?

An SME is a Small or Medium-sized Enterprise, defined as employing fewer than 250 people. SMEs are an important growth area for graduate recruitment. New and upcoming businesses tend to be SMEs and they cover almost all business sectors. The sectors traditionally taking advantage of graduate employment are the financial, manufacturing, media and IT sectors. Nevertheless, a good speculative letter and a spot of networking could open doors to other industries.

The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) have produced a DVD exploring how graduates and SMEs can benefit one another. Graduates and their employers relate their own experiences and give practical advice. There is one programme for graduates and another for employers.

For reasons of copyright, these videos can be viewed ONLY by current students of the University of Salford and staff using PCs on the University of Salford campus.

Why work for an SME?

Working in a small business provides the opportunity to get your ideas heard and to get real hands-on experience. Individual input will have a visible impact on the running and performance of the business.

There are less likely to be individual departments for every function and so you will be expected to cope with a variety of tasks. This will give you a clearer understanding of the business. They are also likely to be less hierarchical and so there will be more contact with senior members of the organisation. You will need to be prepared to take responsibility and use your initiative; the chances are that there will not be a manager supervising you all the time. However, if you prove yourself, there are often opportunities for career advancement in expanding companies.

Salaries may not be great to start with but they can rise more rapidly than in companies with a more structured promotion policy. Finally, as there will be fewer employees, there is a greater likelihood of getting to know everybody, staff and clients alike.

What can a graduate offer an SME?

Unlike typical graduate employers, SMEs may have some misconceptions about what a graduate can offer as an employee, just as you may have doubts about working for a small company. Graduates may be perceived as unprepared for the "real world", lacking business sense and experience. On the other hand, graduates are recognised as being intelligent and quick learners.

It is up to you to find out what skills and knowledge the employer may be looking for and to demonstrate where you can contribute towards their business. It is worth remembering that you cannot assume that an employer will be familiar with the nature of higher education - you may have to explain your academic studies and sell the advantages of employing a graduate.

What skills are sought by SMEs?

SMEs seek the same skills as most employers but in a smaller company they will be particularly important as you will need to use them constantly. You should think of evidence to prove each of these skill areas for your CV or application form:

  • Self motivation/proactivity
  • Willingness to learn
  • Problem solving ability
  • Flexibility
  • Initiative
  • Good communication skills
  • Teamwork
  • Organisation (self, work and time)

How do I approach an SME?

Whilst larger organisations rely on their reputation and a presence at graduate recruitment fairs, it is unlikely that smaller enterprises will rely on either. They will generally choose to advertise their vacancies through the local press, university and local graduate vacancy listings, job centres and, potentially, through word of mouth. In addition, candidates who apply speculatively - submitting an excellent CV and covering letter - may fill a significant number of vacancies. However, a speculative letter and CV alone may not be enough, no matter how well presented they are so always try to follow up a speculative letter or telephone call with a meeting.

Some SMEs are rather unorthodox in their approach to recruitment - if they meet you, like you and see that you are keen, they may be tempted to offer you a position.


  • The Careers & Enterprise office has a video called Can I have a Few Minutes of Your Time?

This video shows how an undergraduate uncovers the hidden jobs that never get advertised, and gains work experience so she can apply for jobs that require it. Please note: this film is only available for use in Careers and Employability.

  • Application Handouts: We have a range of handouts explaining and giving examples of various ways to apply for jobs.
  • The Department for Business Innovation & Skills supports sustained growth and higher skills across the economy. It has resources aimed at helping new businesses get up and running and contains useful information about SMEs and the issues they face.
  • The Library offers access to a variety of electronic sources of company and market information that can be useful for finding SMEs. Please note: you have to be a current student at the University of Salford to access this information. Graduates should consider visiting their local business library to see which databases are available for access.
  • Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) offer graduates with a good degree the chance to work for a successful organisation, managing and delivering a project which is core to the development of the organisation's strategy. KTP offers the chance to apply your degree, start a real job, and gain a professional qualification. See the KTP website for more information.
  • STEP is a UK-wide programme offering students temporary project-based work within SMEs. Students must be in their penultimate year to be eligible for this scheme.

Further help

  • Ask Careers & Enterprise
  • Visit the Commercial Library in Manchester. This is an excellent source for local business directories and the library keeps up-to-date links of key local business organisations.