Why graduate training schemes are seen as the gold standard. And why you should re-think.

Friday, October 23, 2015
Ask final year students where they want to work and the majority will identify a graduate training scheme with a big, well known company. Probably in London.

This will become a reality for just 10% of graduates so why the mismatch between perception and reality?

It’s mostly about scale. The large graduate recruiters – many of whom undoubtedly run fantastic schemes – have the budgets to run glossy recruitment campaigns and the staff to work with university careers services. Which is great – and something most businesses might aspire to. The downside however, is that the low profile of small firms means that many graduates feel that taking a role with one is a bit of a come-down.

And it’s not.

Working for a small company is hugely rewarding and highly underrated. So why should you consider it?

Well, for a start, small companies are the biggest employers of graduates. Developing a successful career starts with knowing the job market and being realistic. Given that 90% of graduates end up working in small companies, you’d be crazy to rule it out. And small companies dominate the south west labour market.

In a small company, you’re kind of a big deal. Smaller businesses don’t employ anyone, let alone graduates, without giving it lots of thought. They will have identified a need for your skills and are likely to have a clear picture about what they want you to achieve.

Make no mistake, working in a small company gives you a great opportunity to manage your own projects. You’re unlikely to have departments dedicated to every aspect of the business so you’ll need to knuckle down and get to grips with a wide range of new tasks. Need to manage a budget? Chances are, you’ll be knocking up your own spreadsheets and dusting off the calculator. Have to collect data? It’s likely you’ll be responsible for finding the best software and checking out the rules on privacy. You get the picture. It may sound daunting but you’ll have others to call on and will develop a fantastic range of transferable skills – not to mention initiative.

The others you have to call on may include the senior management team. It’s not unusual for smaller companies to have flat management structures which give immediate access to experienced senior managers from who you can learn first-hand. And working with the top brass is an excellent way to develop your confidence.

Another advantage of working in a smaller set up is the relative lack of red tape. Large organisations necessarily need to adopt a very structured approach to managing their workforce. In smaller organisations, there tends to be a more pragmatic approach so it it’s a good idea, there’s more chance of running with it immediately. And this often extends to working practices; in my experience, smaller companies don’t have to worry so much about setting precedents so are sometimes more able to accommodate flexible working, provided, of course, that you’ve proved your worth.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to working for a small company is the sense of ownership. You’ll have the satisfaction of seeing that what you are doing makes a difference and this is hugely satisfying. There’s nothing better than working as part of a close knit team to make good stuff happen.

Now there are drawbacks to working in smaller companies. The most obvious ones are salary levels and opportunities for career progression. But are these real drawbacks or are they just common misconceptions?

Take salaries. Every year, average graduate salaries hit the headlines from the Association of Graduate Recruiters which represents the big graduate recruiters. Remember, only 10% of graduates go on to work for these companies, so the figures that make the news are the average salaries of just 10% of graduates. Which, when you think about it, isn’t really an average at all. The wider ‘What do graduates do?’ survey reveals that average salary after 6 months for 2013-4 graduates employed full time in the UK is £20,637. So, if you’re in this ball-park working for a small outfit, you’re doing good.

Similarly, the lack of opportunity for career progression is a bit of a myth. Nowadays, graduates are expected to have two or three different careers within their working life. Working for a large company may give you access to more structured career progression. But it might not. And if you’ve worked in a small company and developed a range of skills, you’re in a good position to apply them in a different environment.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the large graduate schemes. They offer outstanding opportunities. But so do smaller firms – and this is a fact that goes widely unacknowledged. If we could address this, we could narrow the mismatch between perception and reality and ensure that graduates make the best use of all the choices available to them; different but equal.

Charlotte Weston

Charlotte is a graduate with many years’ experience in both large and small organisations. She now works as a consultant to a range of SMEs across the south west and is a Non-Executive Director of Gradsouthwest.

Look for graduate jobs in the south west at Gradsouthwest