How to get into SMEs

If you have read the previous section on Why Graduates Should Consider SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises), you will know there’s a clear message for students and graduates: look beyond the big corporate grad schemes – despite their high profile, they are not the only route to employment, and in fact the majority of graduates do not follow these structured training programmes. There are many equally fulfilling roles with smaller companies, though you might have to search harder to find them.
In this article, we explain how to get into SMEs: where to find out about job openings and how to apply.
Small companies can’t afford big recruitment campaigns, nor do they generally have close relationships with universities to attract candidates, so they commonly recruit via networking – relying on personal contacts and referrals. So how can you break into this so-called ‘hidden’ jobs market?
There are various ways in, but you will need to be proactive! Target SMEs in industries that interest you, search for real and potential opportunities, and then make contact. They will probably be delighted to hear from you!

Target SMEs

Research industries or careers that interest you and identify organisations that you might like to work for.
Unlike graduate schemes that have set application procedures at certain times of the year, SMEs hire when they need people, meaning openings can crop up at any time. So you will need to keep your finger on the pulse: keep track of both advertised jobs and potential employment opportunities e.g. if the industry or a company is growing fast, has made recent acquisitions, launched a successful new product/service, landed a major customer, or is venturing into a new geographical market etc. – any of these business developments could lead to a recruitment drive.
Your research can provide a hook – a reason to engage with the company, which demonstrates real interest and shows initiative.  Make direct approaches to companies to enquire about openings, or on a speculative basis.

Sources of SME Opportunities

There are several ways to find out about SMEs and potential opportunities, so it’s wise to adopt a varied job search strategy:

Company website & social channels

Jobs boards

Specialist recruitment agencies

Networking – in person

Social networks – social hiring

Speculative applications

Work experience/internships

Looking for job opportunities

Company Website & Social Channels

Employers use their websites, networks and social media channels to showcase their company and attract jobseekers. Look out for advertised jobs, internships or work placements, as well as industry networking events and company news that could lead to hiring. Email or use their social channels (LinkedIn or Twitter) to contact HR or the relevant department managers, to enquire about opportunities.
You can also gain a good insight into company culture from their website and social, for instance their vision and values, what they post about, how they engage with customers and employees etc. This will help you gauge the ‘personality’ of an organisation, and whether you feel you would fit in.
Also research the industry, business, role and key people, to give yourself a competitive edge in applications and interviews.

Jobs Boards & Recruitment Agencies

Most SMEs advertise vacancies on jobs boards and some use recruiters.
Check if there are specialist recruitment agencies for your industry/profession. They often act as a hub for SMEs, so could help you access opportunities you might not find otherwise. But do be aware that recruitment agencies work on behalf of the employer to fill vacancies, so don’t be persuaded to apply for jobs that don’t suit you.
Helpful sources:

Graduate Jobs – SMEs

Indeed – Small Business Graduate Schemes

Indeed – Small Business Graduate Jobs

Guardian Jobs  – SMEs

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP)
KTPs are government-funded graduate recruitment programmes working with SMEs. They link a graduate with a business and an academic or research organisation, to work together on a specific project. There are over 300 KTP opportunities available each year, with around two thirds leading to permanent employment with the host company once the project ends.

Knowledge Transfer Partnerships: what they are & how to apply

KTP current vacancies
Most vacancies are in engineering, IT & business-related subjects



Leverage your personal network. Talk to family, friends, alumni, university tutors and your wider social circle to find out about companies and identify suitable contacts.

Why it’s important & how to get started

Attend careers fairs and industry networking events.
Go armed with your ‘elevator pitch’ (brief intro of who you are, what you’re hoping to do etc.), pertinent questions for employers, copies of your CV and business cards if you have them.
Follow up a few days later to thank people you spoke to; not only is it good manners, but it will keep you top of mind.


Search careers fairs and networking events

How to get the Best out of Careers Fairs



Social Networks

Social media now plays a prominent role in recruitment:
For employers:
Almost 95% of companies now use social media for recruiting purposes

‘Thanks to social media, it’s never been easier for smaller employers to effectively engage potential new hires.’

Dan Dackombe, Director of LinkedIn Talent Solutions


For jobseekers:
73% of millennials found their last position through a social media platform

Employers use social media channels to attract, find and vet candidates. So, you need to get yourself out there – to be found by recruiters and find out about opportunities.


Be found easily

Make sure that you are discoverable online and that your social media profile is up to scratch:


‘After referrals, recruiters find their best candidates through social & professional networks’

Source: Jobvite Social Recruiting Survey


Create the best impression
Sort your online profile before you even begin job-hunting – this could be one of the first ways a prospective employer comes across you, and it’s just as important as a strong CV!

  • Professional: LinkedIn is the leading channel for social hiring, so set up a good profile (which acts like your online CV). Make use of other platforms appropriate to your career e.g. for creatives, Instagram is a great way to display your online portfolio.

  • Personal e.g. Facebook and Twitter. Recruiters will view your social media profiles to gauge whether you would be a good fit with the company, so make use of privacy settings and remove anything that could be seen as unprofessional.

Boost your visibility
Grow your network and maintain an active social media presence:

  • Follow employers, recruiters and inspirational people in your industry.

  • Connect with people who know an organisation or can advise on career development (but never ask them to help you get a job!)

  • Join groups – ask questions, participate in discussions.

  • Add and share useful content

This strategy will demonstrate your interest in the industry and build a professional image; active networking helps to keep you top of mind when opportunities arise, and companies are seeking referrals and recommendations.

Find out

Use social networks to research companies and roles, find jobs, and prep for applications and interviews

  • Use #hashtags to search for job openings:
    Popular job search: #hiring  #jobsearch  #careers  #graduate  #TweetMyJobs  #ukjobs (or by city) etc.
    Industry specific examples: #salesjobs  #SEO  #tech etc.

  • Check company websites and their social channels for advertised job listings and potential opportunities.

  • Leverage your contacts and the wealth of information on social networks, to research and prepare well for job applications and interviews.


‘People genuinely like to help – I asked on Facebook, does anyone know anyone at X company, and I got 8 replies.  You will know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody in that organisation. That’s a really great use of social media – sweat the asset you’ve got out there!’

Patrick Burge, mentor and business adviser



Speculative Applications

If you are interested in an SME, even if they are not actively recruiting, it is well worth approaching them directly with a tailored cover letter and CV.
A targeted approach shows initiative and enthusiasm and is more likely to receive a positive response. Use a hook, based on your research e.g. you noticed they are expanding, you were inspired by their latest product launch etc. Explain what you can offer and enquire about job opportunities or internships/work experience, which can be a good route to a permanent role with an SME.
Find out the name of the person responsible for hiring (e.g. the head of department) and direct your application to them.
If you haven’t heard back, it is worth following up politely after a couple of weeks. But if still no response, just move on.

Speculative applications tips


Work Experience & Internships

For a small company, it is crucial to recruit the right candidate, because they will immediately become a functioning member of a small team, with real responsibilities. The wrong choice can be a costly mistake.  So work experience/internships provide an invaluable, low risk recruitment tool for SMEs – a chance to ‘try before you buy’, which helps both the employer and the prospective employee.
If you perform well, you could well be rewarded with a permanent position. Small businesses are constantly changing and growing, so even if there is no immediate vacancy, you are likely to be top of the list when they do need to recruit. And if it doesn’t lead to a full-time job, at the very least you would acquire transferrable skills and some useful contacts.

Where to find internships & work experience opportunites
How to get the most out of work experience

Useful sources of internships:

Prospects – Work experience & internships
Includes apprenticeships, volunteering, student jobs & more

Graduate Jobs – Internships & work placements

Rate My Placement

Inspiring Interns
Note some roles are ‘expenses only’

Santander Internships with SMEs
Santander’s internship programme helps students & graduates from its partner universities, to gain paid work experience with an SME. If you are interested, please contact your university careers department.


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