Are we doing enough to prepare graduates for a small firm world?

November 4, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Enterprise 

Careers fairs are false advertising. By that I mean they present an image of the world of work that is heavily skewed towards big business. PwC, Deloitte, Rolls Royce, Bloomberg – all are present at nearly every university campus across the country. Yet bar the odd exception, small businesses are few and far between.

I know this from first-hand experience. When I graduated from university in 2008, I diligently did laps of the Manchester careers fair circuit looking for a different kind of employer – to little avail. Of course that was over 5 years ago and things could have changed since then. But judging from a recent paper by the research organisation SFEDI, the lack of engagement between graduates and small firms remains as problematic as ever.

Their report shows that just 20 per cent of all graduates in 2010/11 found employment in a small firm (1-49 employees), compared to 44 per cent who found a job in a large one (250+ employees) (See the table below). This is despite small firms employing a third of the UK workforce – a figure that looks set to grow should current trends keep pace. Little wonder that an overwhelming 95 per cent of graduate careers heads say that SME recruitment is an area in need of addressing.


Part of the problem lies with the attitudes of small business owners. Many think graduates are too much effort to manage, or that they’ll scarper not long after they arrive. Others perceive that they simply don’t have time to deal with the paperwork and hassle of the recruitment process itself. If you’re a firm of 5 employees, just a single day being distracted by other tasks can cause havoc. Better simply to hire an old hand or family friend.

As always, however, the issue lies as much with demand as it does with supply. Even when small firms see the benefit of recruiting a young graduate, that feeling may not be reciprocated. According to the same SFEDI study, many graduates believe small firms pale in comparison to large ones when it comes to pay, working conditions, opportunities for career progression and so on. Parents are an obstacle too, with many keen for their child to work in a global firm with a big brand attached. Most small firms simply can’t offer the same kind of status or grandeur people are looking for.

Yet perhaps the biggest problem is that we have a higher education system that is heavily biased towards big business. Universities do their utmost to meet the needs of major corporates – from giving them a platform at graduate careers fairs, to tailoring course content to suit their needs, to designing completely bespoke undergraduate studies – something that Morrisson’s and an increasing number of other major firms are now operating.

Of course, most of this is done with the admirable goal to enhance the employability of students. Yet it ignores the huge benefits that young people can accrue from working in a small firm. Indeed, small business environments arguably provide more autonomy and greater opportunities to progress (things that millennials are said to prize over the size of their salary). It’s also a great deal more exciting being at the coalface of a business, particularly one that is growing rapidly. This is why initiatives such as Enternships and the New Entrepreneurs Foundation, which place graduates in fast growing businesses, are attracting so much interest.

The task for universities is to take this message out there to both students and local businesses, and convince them of the benefits of working together. It would be a lot better than peddling the myth that big businesses are the only option open to graduates.

The RSA and Etsy are exploring similar themes in a new project, The Power of Small. Click here to find out more.

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The Power of Fellowship Connections

February 5, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

I was struck by just how powerful the work of a few individuals can be to create and sustain an idea following a meeting recently with Ian Jamie, a Fellow and School Governor at Whitley Academy.  Through personal experience and insight of the local situation he has begun to work with the Academy to help support Year 12 students as they begin to consider their next steps.  Having experienced the power of support from a network of alumni and family friends as he developed his career he has seen the value of connectivity.  Ian and the staff that are working with the 6th form are keen to take the best from their experiences to offer similar opportunities for 6th form students at Whitley Academy.

As students move into 6th forms, colleges and work the need to focus their minds is increasingly encouraged.  Choices and decisions are looming and it is school, families and friends that offer support and advice.  Recent work from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation has highlighted that young people and families rarely suffer from a lack of aspirations but what if students families and friends have limited experiences of the wide career options available?

At Whitley Academy Ian Jamie and the Academy staff will be offering further support to Year 12 students.  He has worked with the school to create a programme to help students explore where they want to go after Whitley Academy.  As Temi Ogunye notes in his blog about school networks it is important to “provide opportunities for [students] by creating the conditions within which useful connections can be made and enriching experiences can be had.”

This is the overarching aim for the work in Coventry.  The Academy has identified career connections for all its Year 12 students.  Through personal and community networks the staff and governors have begun to draw up a list of supporters to offer advice, encouragement and links with the world of work.

On Thursday 21st of March they will be taking the next step by hosting a targeted careers session for the 6th form to help foster these connections. Ian is hoping to encourage further support from another powerful network that we all know about.  I have been tasked with seeking out a number of Fellows from our 27,000 strong network to offer support and time to students, so if you see or @pickfordrich in your inbox you know what might be coming next.  If you have any of your own ideas for supporting students across the RSA Academies then please contact me.  The RSA will be running open roadshows at each of the sponsored schools across the next two terms.  The first was held yesterday on Monday, 4th of February at RSA Arrow Vale and Ipsley Academies.  Watch this space for a report about this event.

RSA Fellows help learners plan their next steps

June 15, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Fellowship 

Students leaving school today face a daunting set of challenges, not least a competitive job market and a crowded university admissions process. These circumstances put students under great pressure to make the right decisions, and a project funded by our Catalyst seed fund has tested a new approach to helping students think clearly and realistically about their options.

Students at one of the workshops

The Transitions Programme, led by RSA Fellow Ingrid Wassenaar, delivered a pilot programme working with four schools from the RSA Family of Academies. The starting point for Ingrid and her team (Zella King and Jon Harris) were the findings of Alison Wolf’s review of vocational education. One of her report’s central themes was the difficulty faced by students in navigating the complex system of post-16 options.

In such an environment, argues Ingrid, good information about options alone isn’t enough. “What are needed in order to process this extraordinary amount of information are thinking skills,” she says. “Young people need to strengthen their sorting, analytical, and interpretive muscles in order to stay focused on their dreams, weed out what is non-information, and assess what is really viable, really desirable, and really future-proof in terms of their unfolding careers.”

The team’s response was to provide six workshops focussing on the skills that young people need to make sound decisions. Four of these focussed on skill areas: creative problem-solving; critical thinking and feedback; personal networks and persuasive speaking. These were supplemented by two one-on-one sessions with students, one looking at their progress to date, and another at their future ambitions.

The report on the pilot programme (Word document) provides a rich seam of qualitative feedback from the students, many of whom seem to have found the programme useful in thinking more clearly about their options. Some of the responses hint at a deep uncertainty, with one student admitting: “I want to know what I want to do, and do it, not experiment. I’m unsure, not frightened, but not looking forward to the future.”

The session on personal networks showed me that who you know and who they know is interesting, analysing what kind of group you are in.

- student feedback

It’s clear from the feedback that the workshop facilitators initially struggled to persuade students of the worth of the programme. In particular, they questioned why the workshops (particularly those on problem-solving and critical thinking skills) were relevant to their career decisions. Once this had been overcome though, many students developed a broader view of their options. For instance, one commented: “The session on personal networks showed me that who you know and who they know is interesting, analysing what kind of group you are in.”

The single biggest issue with a project like this, as the project team acknowledge in the report, is that it is time-intensive and therefore expensive to deliver. The Catalyst funding provided support for travel, accommodation and materials, but no compensation for the facilitators’ time. For this reason, “the programme is unsustainable in its current form”. This said, in the context of the abolition of the Connexions careers service, the Department for Education has said that schools now have more freedom over how they deliver face-to-face careers advice. Ingrid will maintain the relationships with the RSA Academies, and would be keen to hear from any Fellows who are interested in helping develop the programme further (you can contact her at

More generally, though, Ingrid’s project shows how effective Catalyst can be in helping to test out a new approach to a social problem – if you’d like to know more, information on the fund and how to apply is available on our website.

Sam Thomas is the RSA’s Project Engagement Manager. Follow @iamsamthomas on Twitter.