If you’re looking for a work experience placement that allows you to see the effect of your efforts quickly, is available locally wherever you live, and can be tailored to suit your needs, you should consider looking for opportunities with small and medium-sized businesses, typically organisations with fewer than 250 employees.
Small businesses can offer you wide-ranging opportunities and are a great source of graduate employment. Moreover they may receive fewer applications from high-profile intern employers. You may well find that thinking small and aiming high can give you a good head start in the race for a graduate job.
How to apply for work experience with small companies
You can find opportunities for work experience with small and medium-size companies via TARGETjobs and your university careers service. The organisations Step and ScotGrad coordinate student summer placements and graduate placements with small employers.
If a company that interests you hasn’t formally advertised a work experience opportunity, make a speculative application.
Why do work experience in a small business?
1. In a small organisation, you can make a bigger impact. Processes in small companies tend to be shorter and more visible, so you can see the effect of your work relatively quickly.
2. The work you do will impress graduate recruiters. Many placements with smaller companies are project based. This means that you can take ownership of a task and see it through to the end – something that will impress recruiters when it comes to graduate job applications. You will be closely involved in the employer’s whole business process and gain a real insight into how they operate.
3. Early responsibility. If you have the chance to take ownership of a task and see it through, your initiative will be tested and you’ll be able to develop your leadership, teamworking, time management and organisational skills.
4. Your contribution will be highly valued. In a smaller organisation a spare pair of hands can undertake tasks no-one else has time for. Students often provide a valuable resource to employers who are busy working hard on the core business and don’t have the time to look at issues such as competitor analysis, marketing or market research. A student can dedicate their time to one of these areas and offer enterprising ideas to improve the business.
5. Your placement can be tailored to suit you. Work experience at a small organisation is unlikely to follow a standard, predetermined schedule and it should be possible to give you opportunities that reflect your interests.
6. Do well, and there’s a good chance you’ll be asked back. A high proportion of small employers may be able to offer students further work after their placement, from additional one-off projects to full-time employment when they graduate.
7. If you’re a budding entrepreneur you should see a small organisation in action. If you’re interested in starting your own business in future, a placement is an excellent way to gain insight into how a small to medium-sized business is run. You may even have the opportunity to work with the company’s founder and find out first hand how the business was set up.
8. Think local – save cash. Whereas many work experience schemes and internships with large graduate employers are likely to be based in London, small businesses can be found in locations across the country. If you don’t live in the capital, setting up work experience with a local business could save you the expense of funding accommodation there. If you think that in the long term you would prefer not to live in London – perhaps because your roots are elsewhere – why not start building up your network of local contacts now?
9. Specialise. Companies with fewer than 250 employees may be more likely to offer opportunities to focus on particularly niche areas.
10. There are so many opportunities out there. Small and medium-sized businesses are the engine of the economy, making up 99.3% of British private sector businesses, according to the Federation of Small Businesses.
What about getting an unpaid internship or work shadowing?
If you undertake work, you should be paid. However, if you join a start-up and they can’t afford to pay you, a small company may be willing to be flexible about hours, so you can combine unpaid work experience with paid part-time work for a couple of weeks (commit to no more than that). Alternatively, you may also be able to arrange a brief period of work shadowing. However, before you accept any unpaid work experience, make sure that you know your rights and that you will gain knowledge and skills from the experience.
Your university jobshop or employment service will advertise paid vacation work with local companies. This will give you a chance to gain some practical evidence of your skills and develop your understanding of how businesses work.