Why SMEs should consider creating a grad programme

By Damon Anderson, below, UK MD, Employment Hero

It’s September. Summer is over and at dozens of large employers across the UK freshly-credentialed young people are in the first month of their “grad programmes”. It’s no surprise that so many of the brightest graduates head to these programmes. They offer structured development pathways, extensive resources, and access to a network of experienced professionals. But there is no reason SMEs should let larger organisations take all this excellent talent.

How to fix that? A graduate programme of your own.

Why grads can be tempted by an SME

Large employers play on their size to construct graduate programmes.

Their reputation means their potential employees have probably heard of them already, and may even know others who work there. This reputation lets these organisations create strong relationships with top-tier universities and lets potential employees know they are serious about career development – if they really are. And their size means a graduate can envision an entire career there.

But SMEs can attack this weakness and play on their smaller size and agility.

They can emphasise that newer employees can get serious responsibility faster than they might at a huge bureaucratic employer. This will give them a far wider range of hands-on experience a lot quicker than a role at a larger employer will, and they could move a lot higher a lot faster.

Their work will be visible to top decision-makers in ways it is unlikely to be at larger organisations. Their CEO won’t be a far-away person they get to see on Zoom calls every now and then – they’ll be someone they might work with every day or every week. And it could see them helping to shape the company in just a few years.

Working at a smaller organisation often provides a unique, close-knit experience where individuals can make a significant impact. Highlighting this can attract many grads looking for a more personalised work environment.

How to construct a grad programme 

Graduate programmes don’t have to be expensive. In fact, with careful planning and resource allocation, SMEs can develop effective programmes that rival those of larger corporations. Here’s a breakdown of what to consider:

  • Time-based promotion pathways: A lot of new hires to graduate programmes get some type of certainty about how the first few years of their career might look. This doesn’t mean they get a guarantee of a permanent position at the end of the programme – but they do get the guarantee that there will at least be a conversation about it. This certainty helps them plan their life and gives them confidence that they won’t be stuck in the same “entry-level” position for the foreseeable future. If you can offer your graduates a permanent, or higher-paid, role at the end of their programme, you’ll be in a strong
  • Structured training: Develop a comprehensive training curriculum that covers both the technical skills and soft skills needed at your organisation. This will take a bit of time if you are working from scratch – but if you do it well for one year you’ll hopefully be able to re-use a lot of the material for the following year’s intake.
  • Dedicated mentoring: Assign experienced mentors to guide and support your graduates. Mentors can provide valuable insights, career advice, and help them navigate the complexities of full-time work; the mentors will likely learn a bit too.
  • Moving allowances: Many graduates relocate for their first job. Offering a bit of cash upfront will help you entice those who are worried about the sudden expense that might incur – and the amount doesn’t have to be huge. You could also look at welcome boxes to help them settle into their new home.
  • Perks and benefits: Go on TikTok and you’ll see new graduates extremely excited about getting a tote bag full of goodies from their new employers – it’s like Christmas, only with branded USB sticks. You might not be able to immediately match some of the wider benefits these organisations can offer, but a lot of perks can be had for little or no money – things like salary sacrifice cars, bikes, and gym memberships. Your small size might let you offer perks a more rigid company culture couldn’t manage – like early finishes on Fridays, extra annual leave, or the ability to work from abroad.

This might seem like a lot to organise for one or two graduates, but if you get a good rhythm going, every year will be easier than the last. The talent you hire could soon be some of the best people your business has.

Obviously, graduate programmes won’t work for every SME, and SMEs won’t work for every graduate. But if you’re on the hunt for young talent, it’s certainly worth considering.