I was introduced to our local university, the University of Reading, at a careers event in 2009. Before this chance meeting, I didn’t know that relationships between small businesses and academia were possible, let alone encouraged.

“We need to be initiating conversations with our local universities about what skills and experience the SME community is seeking in future employees.”

Five years on, our business has benefited immeasurably from this partnership, from our involvement in the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) scheme, to the insight and support of university staff. Overwhelmingly, it has opened my eyes to the effect that academic and business collaboration can have on future graduates’ employability. I write from the position of a still-small (we employ 16 people in our Basingstoke office) business leader – but I have no doubt that we can ignite change in our local region.

As an SME, we rely on graduates possessing soft skills such as high levels of initiative and professional conduct. Like many, we do not have the resources, time or structure to spend long ‘training up’ graduates, and need new starters to be ready to jump right in. A lot of students do garner great skills throughout initiatives like the Model UN or Young Enterprise schemes, and pursue work experience, volunteer placements or part time jobs. Unfortunately, however, many others won’t have had access to some of these opportunities.

It is within this area that local academic and business collaboration can make a truly positive impact. On a practical level, SMEs can offer work experience, careers talks, open days and even Year in Industry placements, enabling students to gain those vital soft skills whilst forging connections with potential employers. We also need to be initiating conversations with our local universities about what skills and experience the SME community is seeking in future employees. We can help shape work-ready and confident graduates, ensuring students are receiving relevant information from their course materials and careers guidance. In doing so, we can influence the type of graduates that local universities are producing, thus strengthening the emerging talent pool for ourselves and other nearby businesses. I probably do not need to say how increasing employability for young people can benefit their local communities.

Working alongside the university offers us the power to change perceptions of graduate recruitment. Some employers still view young people as a ‘risk’. Through positive case studies and education, we can encourage SMEs to take this risk, whilst the input of a local university can offer support to businesses hiring graduates, be it through structured initiatives, such as the KTP, through to helping with R&D.

Graduate recruitment can be a challenge for SMEs. We, for example, have a limited recruitment budget, so it is rare for us to appear at large careers fairs or promote opportunities on the major graduate job boards. As such, our visibility is compromised, and we can be cast into the shadow of traditional, big-name grad schemes. Businesses like ours simply cannot function without highly educated and skilled employees. Connecting with a university can encourage students to look beyond larger companies and instead consider opportunities with an SME.

“Conversations need to be happening between SMEs and academia now, in order to educate, inspire and effect change.”

I can only speak from personal experience, but our relationship with the University of Reading has been hugely positive. Dr Susan Matos, Director of the Knowledge Transfer Centre, introduced us to the KTP, and her academic team offered us the support and structure to ensure that we were getting the best results from our KTP student (an outstanding team member, still with us today) whilst providing him with a challenging and engaging experience. Since then, our relationship with the University has gone from strength to strength. Its continued connection to our business has been instrumental in building our network.

We cannot change the graduate employment landscape overnight – and we certainly cannot do it alone. But, together, we can facilitate positive change in our local communities. Let’s talk openly with course leaders and academics to ensure employability and soft skills are a focus throughout college and university education.

Let’s focus on getting employers into schools even earlier – catch children before they make their option choices; speak with careers advisors to offer an insight into what small business leaders are really looking for. Let’s open our doors to workshops, to open days, to work experience.

The conversations I mention within this article need to be happening between SMEs and academia now, in order to educate, inspire and effect change.

Karen Ovenden is Co-founder and Operations Director of Hireserve, which has been providing e-recruitment solutions to multinational, medium and small businesses and not-for-profit organisations for over 15 years. Karen is dedicated to raising the profile of academic and SME collaboration and providing opportunities for young people.

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