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A graduate’s guide to starting your career with a small employer

You don’t need to start you career through a large graduate scheme. Graduates can get extra responsibility early on and enjoy a tight-knit working environment at an IT SME (small- or medium-sized enterprise). Find out more about this valuable route into tech careers.
Employees within smaller firms are often given a high level of autonomy and early responsibility.

Find graduate IT jobs with small employers: Why start small? | Where to find tech jobs with smaller employers | How to apply for jobs at SMEs | Apply speculatively for hidden vacancies | Training and salaries at smaller employers

Did you know: new graduates are more likely to get their first job in the IT and technology sector at a smaller employer, rather than at a larger graduate employer. So it’s important that you don’t neglect this rich vein of future job opportunities. Smaller employers can include local technology firms, boutique or niche software development companies and technology start-ups. Read on to find out how to find these opportunities at smaller employers (including ‘hidden’ opportunities) and how you should apply for them.

You may have also seen these smaller employers called SMEs (small- to medium-sized enterprises), a term that describes businesses which employ fewer than 250 people. In 2018 the Federation of Small Businesses reported that there were 5.6 million small businesses in the UK, which employed around 16.3 million people.

Why should you start your career small?

You can expect a close-knit work environment at a smaller employer, as SMEs will hire fewer people than large multi-national tech companies. At the same time, employees within smaller firms are often given a high level of autonomy and early responsibility. However, you won’t have to fend for yourself. Having fewer people within a business usually leads to a more open and inclusive working culture.

In an SME it can be easier for your individual contribution to be recognised than in a large company, which can result in a greater sense of engagement with your work and the company. Managers and even directors are often more accessible and often have greater involvement in the day-to-day work of the business.

Depending on the company, you may also be able to get involved with more specialised work at a smaller employer. Niche software companies and start-ups will typically focus on offering a smaller number of specific technology services. If you are interested in, and want to gain experience in, a specific area of software or hardware, you may be able to find a smaller employer which focuses on just that.

Where to find graduate jobs at small employers

Finding entry-level jobs for graduates in smaller technology companies requires you to look in the right places.

  • Look on specialist IT job boards and, of course, on targetjobsit.co.uk for trainee and junior positions.
  • Speak to your university careers services. Universities will usually build close links with local employers for both full-time and work experience vacancies. Go in and ask – they may be advertising IT and technology opportunities at SMEs, or they may be able to let you know how to get in contact with a local employer.
  • Check out the local science/business park. Many small tech firms reside in business parks outside of major city centres. Go to the United Kingdom Science Park Association website to track down those near you and take a look at the list of companies based at that park.
  • Your existing contacts can be a big help when looking for a job with an SME: speak to your friends, tutors and people on your course to see if you can get any leads.
  • You can also find placements and internships in SMEs via organisations such as Step (www.step.org.uk) and ScotGrad (scotgrad.co.uk).

How to apply for graduate jobs on SMEs

Once you’ve found a smaller employer that you want to apply for, the first step is to check their website and see whether they are advertising any entry-level or graduate-specific job opportunities. SMEs may not follow the same recruitment timetable as large employers with annual graduate intakes, so jobs can pop up throughout the year.

When responding to an advertised position, make sure to read the employer’s instructions about how to apply carefully. Typically, smaller employers will ask for a covering letter and a technical CV, rather than asking you to fill in an online application form. Read the job listing carefully and ensure that your covering letter and CV match the skills and the technical knowledge that is asked for.

SMEs are likely to take into consideration your experience, individuality and creativity rather than simply your academic achievements. As such, it’s important to sell yourself and yours skills well in your application. Make the effort to tailor it to the specific organisation and role that you have applied for and you’ll have more success landing the job. In your covering letter be sure you discuss why you want to work for the employer. Ask yourself questions such as: what about the employer is attractive to you, how will the employer help you to achieve your career ambitions, and how does the employer stand out from other companies in the sector?

Find hidden graduate technology jobs by applying speculatively

Many smaller employers may not have the resources to advertise their vacancies widely or they may be looking to hire someone without a specific role in mind. In fact, speculative applications are often the main route into smaller tech companies. A speculative application is ‘applying on the off-chance’, rather than responding to a particular job opportunity, and can result in job and work experience opportunities.

Your covering letter will be your first point of contact, so it’s important that it’s concise and gives details of what you can offer the organisation, rather than what you want to get out of them. Show off your research into the employer and write about why you want to work with them in particular. It’s crucial that you are clear about what you are looking for: if you are looking for two-weeks’ work experience in May or your first software engineering job after graduation, say that!

Your covering letter should be formal and it’s advisable that you address your letter to a specific person, if at all possible: find out who’s responsible for recruitment and address the letter to them directly.

Don’t forget to follow up with a phone call

It’s not the end of the world if you don’t hear back from the employer straight away. Smaller companies may not have a dedicated recruitment team and can be very busy – you’ve got nothing to lose by following up a speculative application with a polite phone call a few days later to check ‘whether they have had an opportunity to review your covering letter and CV’. When speaking to employers over the phone you’ll also be able to pick up on things that you wouldn’t be able to over email. Try to read the contact’s tone and signals.

What to do if your speculative application isn’t successful

There’s a relatively high degree of risk associated with speculative applications and there’s no guarantee that they will pay off. However, establishing contact with a local employer is always a good thing. If they do not have a vacancy to fill at the time of your application, ask politely if they can hold on to your CV and covering letter and consider you for any upcoming vacancies, or see if you can find out when future vacancies are likely to open. If you’re application doesn’t impress, it never hurts to politely ask for feedback to see how you could improve your chances for future applications.

Salaries and training for IT jobs in SMEs

Starting salaries are often a bit lower than some of the very large IT graduate employers, but technology companies tend to compare and match their salaries to the going rate for the level of the role. Training in SMEs tends to be more informal than a ‘graduate programme’ and most of your training will be done on the job. In some ways you may have more freedom to shape your own path, picking the training you feel is necessary to perform your role.

SMEs are characteristically agile businesses that bring together employees with an innovative and pragmatic mindset. For this reason, working for an SME won’t hold your career back. SME employees are often very adaptable and capable of working across a range of roles or business areas and often have the ability to switch into new activities easily. This is a great way to build a broad range of experience and progress quickly, if you are proactive and flexible in your thinking.

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