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Understanding what attracts students to work for SMEs

25 / 01 / 2022Gemma Woods

A recent report from AGCAS and GTI has identified significant differences in students and graduates who would prefer to work in a small to medium-sized enterprise (SME) after graduation, versus those who would prefer to work for a large organisation.

The research found that, overall, there was a preference for work in large organisations after graduation, with only 14% preferring to work for an SME. However, when viewing careers content or applying for roles on targetjobs, typically in later stages of career readiness, 47% had a preference for SMEs, implying a change over time.

Differences exist in graduate expectations of large organisations versus SMEs, for example the mean expected annual salary for participants who prefer large organisations is £29,061, reducing to £24,883 for those who prefer SMEs.

Preference for SMEs is influenced by degree stage (whether the respondent is a graduate, nearing graduation, or in earlier stages of their degree) and there is more preference for SMEs further along the degree programme.

Additionally, the research identified significant differences between students and graduates based on their personal characteristics, including their ethnicity, sexual orientation, and whether they have a disability.

Participants who are bisexual, gay women, or who selected ‘other’, are more likely to want to work in an SME. Students and graduates who identify as non-binary, or whose gender identity is not the same as the one they were assigned at birth, are also more likely to want to work in an SME after they leave university.

Respondents who are White are comparatively more likely to want to work in an SME after graduation, whereas Asian and Asian British, Black/African/Caribbean, Arab/Arab Scottish/Arab British, and ‘other’ respondents are all less likely to want to work for an SME after they graduate.

Disabled respondents are more likely to want to work for an SME after graduation and less likely to want to work for a large employer.

The research also considered how SMEs can stand out and found that vacancies that use inclusive language appear to be more popular. Popular job adverts are more likely to situate the candidate as intrinsic to the job advert.

Perhaps surprisingly, language used to describe a specific kind of organisational culture seems to appear more often in unpopular job adverts than popular ones, particularly those which mention drinks and refer to young people.

There are some clear points of guidance that can be offered to time-poor SMEs to help them engage successfully. This includes using inclusive language, explaining their value to society, and being careful with the use of perks in an attempt to appeal to students and graduates.

The findings from this research have been developed into a practical guide to help careers and employability professionals support SMEs to make small but potentially important changes to the wording and positioning of their employer profiles and job adverts to – hopefully – help them appeal and make them stand out from the crowd.

Mark Mitchell, GTI Chief Education Partnership Officer says ‘Small and medium-sized businesses kick-start the careers of thousands of graduates each year. Likewise, graduate talent brings innovation and ideas that help power the backbone of the UK economy. GTI are pleased to support this research for universities in their work with employers and students.’

Elaine Boyes, AGCAS Executive Director says ‘This report offers insights into attracting graduates to, the often overlooked, employment opportunities in SMEs. As SMEs make up the majority of the UK labour market, this report will be valuable in helping them to attract graduate talent and provide information for HE careers professionals to help them support the SMEs in their region.’

Read the full report or register for the webinar here 

For media enquiries, interviews and a copy of the report: Elaine Boyes, AGCAS Executive Director on 07736 466942 or

The Association of Graduate Careers Advisory Services (AGCAS) is the expert membership organisation for higher education student career development and graduate employment professionals. Through its members, it supports the best possible career outcomes from higher education for individuals, institutions, society and the economy.

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