What attracts graduates to work for SMEs Vs large organisations?

Mar 7, 2022 | Attraction & marketing

New analysis helps employers attract graduates by understanding their perceptions of SMEs Vs large organisations. 

A recent report by AGCAS and GTI 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 involved the analysis of findings from 2019 Cibyl student survey data from 71,713 students. Relative Insight text analysis software was used to identify trends in the language used between popular and unpopular vacancies.

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, suggesting there may be a change over time, or a change relating to exposure to opportunities.

The research highlighted differences in preference based on student and graduate personal characteristics and the language used by employers in job adverts.

The findings will help employers of all sizes to better understand how to attract graduates.


Are SMEs perceived as more inclusive?

We found that 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.

Similarly, disabled students are more likely to want to work for an SME after graduation and less likely to want to work for a large employer.

This suggests that there may be perceptions that SMEs are more inclusive employers, or are seen as more likely to share the values of those with particular characteristics.

Perhaps, SMEs are also considered to be more flexible workplaces, with less stringent rules in regards to dress codes and working patterns.

This was supported by the research findings, which outlined the most important factors for students/graduates when choosing an employer, with more of those who prefer to work for smaller organisations rating good work-life balance as very important.

For large organisations a high level of personal responsibility, high starting salary, excellent role models, innovation, and international opportunities were rated more important.

However, preference for SMEs is not the case for all those with protected characteristics.

In fact, 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 than the general population.

There may be cultural factors at play, yet both large employers and SMEs ought to consider how they can appeal to those with different characteristics, making their organisations inclusive for all.


Popular and unpopular language in job adverts

Relating to differences in preference by personal characteristics, the research also considered how SMEs can stand out, finding that vacancies that use more inclusive language appear to be more popular.

Vacancies that use language such as “we welcome applications from” or “whatever your degree type”, appear to be more popular, suggesting inclusive language is appealing to students and graduates.

Vacancies that demonstrate the prestige or value of the company are also popular, such as “we’ve won numerous awards” and “opportunity to learn from the best”.

Popular job adverts are also more likely to put the candidate at the centre by using phrases including “whether you want to be involved in X or Y”, “you can find yourself getting involved in…”, or “if you describe yourself as a problem solver”.

There were also language commonalities across unpopular job adverts.

Asking candidates to apply via email was 21.4x more likely to occur in an unpopular job advert than a popular one.

The way employers referred to candidates was also a factor with “be the ideal candidate”, or “possess strong interpersonal skills” appearing more in unpopular job adverts, rather than using language that is more inclusive and open to a range of candidates.

Perhaps surprisingly, language used to describe a specific kind of organisational culture seemed to appear more often in unpopular job adverts than popular ones, such as “young culture”, “Friday drinks”.


Attracting student and graduate candidates

There may be underlying misconceptions or myths about working in SMEs or about working in large corporations that do not reflect reality and may be putting off students and graduates from considering opportunities.

Graduates themselves are not homogenous – each individual has their own values, beliefs and career aspirations that inform their post-graduation choices. The report does not advocate for using data to pigeonhole students and graduates into destinations that the data suggests they may be interested in. It does however, point to a need to personalise job adverts through the use of inclusive language which centres the candidate.

There are some clear points of guidance that can be offered to both large employers and SMEs to help them engage successfully with students and graduates. 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.

We hope this research can be further developed in the future to support the vibrant and diverse communities of SMEs and large employers, to attract great graduates and students to their organisations.

Read more insight and research on attraction

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