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Ten good reasons to look for work experience with small employers

There are small and medium-sized companies in every career sector all over the UK, so don’t limit your work experience options by only looking for opportunities at large companies.

Small and medium-sized businesses make up 99.9% of the business population.

If you are looking for work experience in your local area – perhaps something that is even more appealing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and there is a requirement to stay close to home – you should consider looking into work experience opportunities with small and medium-sized employers, known as SMEs (those with fewer than 250 employees and a turnover of less than €50 million).

Even as we write the above, we know that the coronavirus has massively affected SMEs. Since the start of the pandemic, many have reported that they have had to cancel internships and that they are unable to plan future hiring numbers. So, why are we suggesting investigating work experience opportunities with SMEs? Because they comprise 99.9% of the UK’s businesses and, as such, it’s likely that at least some will need interns. Because since the start of the pandemic some universities have actively worked to place students with local SMEs, which does indeed suggest that SMEs do still need interns. And because in the search for work experience you have to explore every avenue.

If you do get work experience, working for a smaller company could offer you opportunities that larger organisations don’t.

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.

You are likely to have to apply to a smaller employer by emailing a CV and covering letter and then having a phone, a video or (if safe to do so) a face-to-face interview.

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. Many work experience schemes and internships with large graduate employers are likely to be based in London and, although some larger organisations have been offering virtual internships that can be done from home, we are unsure to what extent this will continue. 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 more SMEs than large businesses. Small and medium-sized businesses are the engine of the economy, making up 99.9% of the UK business population, according to GOV.UK. And SMEs are likely to attract fewer applicants than larger businesses, meaning that your chances of gaining an internship could well be higher.

What about getting an unpaid internship or work shadowing?

If you undertake work (for example, being expected to turn up for a certain time for specified hours and undertake tasks), you should be paid. However, we know that unpaid 'internships' do exist and we understand that there could be a temptation to take unpaid work experience just to add value to your CV, particularly in the current economic climate.

If this is the case for you, bear in mind that a small company may be willing to be flexible about hours and tasks, so that you can complete unpaid voluntary work with the company for a couple of weeks (commit to no more than that). Alternatively, you may be able to arrange a brief period of work shadowing (observing a professional at work). Only accept this sort of unremunerated arrangement if it is right for you and if you can afford to. Before agreeing to any unpaid work experience, make sure that you know your rights and that you will acquire knowledge and skills from the experience. If you do not gain from the arrangement, do not agree to it.

Remember that, even in the current climate, your university jobshop or employment service will advertise paid vacation work with local companies, which may be a better alternative for you. It will give you a chance to gain some practical evidence of your skills and develop your understanding of how businesses work.

This article was last updated in October 2020.

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