If SMEs were in the dating game they would be the ones we would take home to meet our mothers. Genuinely caring about their business and employees, and not ones to play the field with other universities, these organisations are the keepers we should want to get in bed with. Far from showy fly-by-night corporate behaviour we can sometimes see, SMEs can offer real opportunities in record time.
Big corporates may turn our heads with their gifts and promises of large graduate intakes but, in the cold light of day, the conversion rates often make it clear that the same promises were made to a host of other university partners they were far more interested in.
But getting your graduates hired by local SMEs is no easy feat. Here are 7 critical things to remember to ensure your SME engagement hits the spot.
1. Size is everything
Saying you are working with an SME is like saying you are going on holiday to the southern hemisphere. The widely accepted definition of 2 - 250 employees covers a huge shift in operations and culture of an organisation. When meeting a new contact, one of your first questions should be how many people they employ. From that you can infer a whole range of things and know how best to approach them. For example, a micro business of 2-10 people is likely to be new to the whole recruitment game (let alone graduate recruitment) whereas an organisation of over 100 will usually have at least one HR person within it.
2. They have no idea how universities work
They don’t know and don’t care, and why should they? You are the expert in that. What they want is a single point of contact who takes time to understand them and will help them meet their recruiting needs effectively. Be that person and, even if behind the scenes you are liaising with different departments, you are likely to gain loyalty from them. They don’t have the time or inclination to work with more than one university if they get a good service from you, their local institution.
3. Their business is their baby
They care, they really, passionately care, about their business and the people they take into it. They are looking for someone to care about them too. Someone to listen and understand their needs rather than sell them a menu of things, half of which are inappropriate. Tailor your advice for them, based on what you learn about them. Show you care! If you had put all your time and effort into building a company (and, in some cases, your life savings) it’s unlikely you’d welcome off-the-shelf, generic options either.
4. They have a day job and they work in real time
Unlike corporate recruiters who spend their whole working life engaging with universities and recruiting graduates, your contact at an SME will be doing this on top of their day job – whether that’s as owner / manager or generalist HR. They advertise a vacancy when they need to fill a vacancy. They need swift action from universities so, if they don’t fit with your student timelines, be prepared to reach out to your recent graduates, alumni, or see if a student placement or student part-time working arrangement might meet their need.
5. They don’t want the rejects
SMEs can offer an unrivalled graduate experience. Where else can a new graduate be sat alongside and learning from the MD of the company every day? They care about their business and want to hire people who can both do the job and actively want to work for them. Don’t use them as your mop up strategy at the end of the year. Instead, heavily publicise the benefits of working in an SME to help the students who this appeals to see them as employers of choice. SMEs are often well networked in the regional business community and your graduate is your product. No-one wants their VC berated at a business dinner because a graduate they placed didn’t hit the mark.
6. They want your advice (but not a lecture)
You are the expert in graduate recruitment. You know what graduates are looking for and when. You can give real local labour market information (rather than inflated national averages) and advise on selection techniques. Even if you don’t have that knowledge, you can point them in the right direction of people who can help. Your knowledge and expertise is gold dust when used in a consultative way. Beware however - it becomes toxic when used in a “that’s not how it works” way. Always be helpful, always be kind.
7. Small can be mighty. One graduate today, ten graduates tomorrow…
One of the frequent challenges to universities using account management techniques with SMEs is the sheer volume of them, with most only offering just one or two vacancies. Yes, it can be time intensive and sometimes the initial return on investment is limited. However, the SMEs of today are the big employers of tomorrow and targeting high growth SMEs can reveal pots of gold. So, just as you have targeting criteria for your key corporate employers, use a similar approach for SMEs. Develop an exclusive relationship and reap the benefits as their recruiting needs grow.
So next time you are reviewing your work in this area, remember SMEs are marriage material. They can offer you a loyal, long term relationship that bears fruit year on year. Go on, let them make an honest service of you!
If you would like to explore these areas further and to learn more about engaging SMEs, please do get in touch!