The vast majority of employers in the UK run small businesses of less than 10 people. Yet, only a minority of them actively recruit graduates. Small business owners and young people tend to eye each other with suspicion, when they eye them at all.  What can they offer each other?

I went to a celebratory event last week for a highly successful paid internship scheme in Sheffield, the first city-wide scheme in the UK. It has already won two national recruitment awards. The RISE Internship Scheme is launching its second recruitment round to place recent graduates in local small businesses.

What makes RISE unique is the collaboration between business, local government and both universities. About 1000 graduates applied to the scheme (split evenly between Sheffield graduates and from elsewhere) and 52 jobs were brokered in 39 SMEs. The target is 85 for 2015.

One of the scheme’s stated aims is to grow the graduate contribution to the local economy. About 95% of businesses in Sheffield are small to medium enterprises. So far, the results are stunning. The retention rate from the first RISE cohort is 80%, generating £762,000 in income to date.

Here are some of the reported obstacles for taking on graduates and how the scheme helps:

  • Capacity – SMEs say they lack the time and capacity to do the spadework for recent graduates. Applicants applied online, including verbal and numerical reasoning tests. Candidates engaged in video and face-to-face interviews, an assessment centre and a transition to the workplace workshop (where I’m a speaker).

RISE took the pain out of the process.

  • Networks – SMEs are supported by leaders in the business community acting as mentors and closer relationships with higher education. It raises the profile of their businesses.
  • Experience – SMEs lack experience of recruiting graduates so struggle to put in place what is needed for an effective recruitment and on-boarding process.

We have been very well supported in understanding needs and getting the right fit with the graduate; RISE is incredibly easy, it works. All we need to do is present the business opportunity.

One owner described the advantages for graduates:

When you join a small business, there is no hiding place. If you are good, you get noticed. I know what they are doing. It’s an opportunity for them to shine and for career progression.

The graduates and SMEs talked glowingly about the mutual benefits of the internships:

It’s given me confidence and that comes from experience.

I’ve had autonomy. It has given me an opportunity I wouldn’t ordinarily have had.

You can quite visibly see the difference of initiatives you implement compared with being in a large company. It has made me reconsider staying in Sheffield.

He is making us more aware of our social responsibilities.

We have changed our graduate recruitment process on the back of the RISE experience.

The event generated ideas for improving the scheme further and broader reflections including:

  • The need for a culture of RISE among universities and business.
  • Building in commercial awareness into university degree courses.
  • Greater access points within universities for SMEs, including an SME careers fair.
  • The opportunity for professional service firms to raise awareness of employing graduates with their SME clients.
  • A RISE scheme for non-graduates.

Working for a small business is not for everyone. Yet, it can be highly rewarding for both graduates and businesses. The RISE scheme shows obstacles can be overcome and misperceptions addressed. We would have lower levels of youth unemployment if every small business took on one young person. Time to rise.

Students and graduates: what are your perceptions or experience of working for a small business?

SMEs: what are your perceptions or experience of taking on a graduate?