We’ve written extensively about creating opportunities for young people fresh from school, college and University. We’ve promoted apprenticeships, work experience and employing graduates.

This is well and good in theory, but if you are an SME with the desire and drive to welcome new talent into your business, but without the knowledge, support or formal structure in place, it can seem like an improbable reality.

Collaborating with a University could provide you with the guidance and framework that you need. It was this very topic that Karen talked about at The FIRM Winter Conference last week. Presenting with Dr Susan Matos, Head of the Knowledge Transfer Centre (KTC) at the University of Reading, Karen shared her experiences as a small employer:

“As a small company, it can sometimes be very difficult to believe that you have the infrastructure in place to take on an inexperienced young person, so a small business has to be pretty inventive.

You have to work very hard to make yourself not only attractive to the young person looking for the opportunity, but to also give you the confidence that you can support and develop that person in your business, that they are not too much of a drain on your team and, longer term, will be of real benefit to your business.”

Back in 2009, Karen wanted to strengthen Hireserve’s growing skill set with a graduate and, subsequently, offer someone their first role straight out of University.

“When I was first looking into graduate opportunities I did not believe that we had the capability to support that type of employee.  I had all these ideas but not the mechanism to deliver them.”

Whilst researching routes at a Careers Fair at Reading University, Karen met Dr Susan Matos.

“Susan came up to me to talk about KTP and her work at Reading.  I learned there was this amazing initiative called Knowledge Transfer Partnership which was an opportunity for businesses to collaborate with a University on an innovative project –something exciting that the University would be interested in developing and where the company would be interested in the skills and expertise of the academics. 

The University would help the business to attract, select and recruit a graduate to manage the project and would connect the business with the relevant academics to help support and guide that project along.  On top of that there was funding!”

The KTP is a Government scheme which is now in its 40th year and is aimed at companies of all sizes. As Susan went on to explain at The FIRM Conference:

“At the University of Reading we’ve been actively involved for over 30 years, and during that time we’ve had projects with over 200 companies, employing over 250 graduates.

Essentially, KTP is a three way partnership that aims to support companies in innovating to grow, who have identified a project of strategic importance but who don’t have the skills and expertise in-house. That’s where the University comes in, as academics and lecturers are brought into the team to fill this gap.”

So for a growth-focused and innovative SME, a scheme like the KTP can make employing a graduate a reality. The KTP offers a structure to small businesses looking to employ fresh talent and deliver a commercially successful project. The University’s academic team also provides that much needed support, insight and skillset to help progress the project and develop the graduate.

Employing a graduate – or an apprentice, school, or college leaver – can offer small businesses the chance to grow and nurture their own talent. It can also help with other team members’ personal and professional development, whether through mentoring or managing.

Something like the KTP initiative can help a small business to be more visible to graduates, as SMEs are often hindered in their candidate attraction strategies with smaller budgets and less visibility than their larger counterparts. Often, graduates are not actively looking to start their careers with an SME, but many of those who do end up falling in love with the culture and opportunities within a smaller organisation.

And, as Karen touched upon in her and Susan’s presentation, SMEs need a platform to shape graduate recruitment just as much as large enterprises. University collaboration can help with this:

“I think what I have been trying to achieve is for businesses like Hireserve to have a stronger voice.  It shouldn’t only be the larger organisations that influence academia but for smaller ones to put their hands up and say, ‘Listen to us, we are successful, we are doing a good job; could you listen to our view point and our needs for our future employees?  We can tell you what we need to build our businesses and the sort of graduates and apprentices that we need’.

The academic establishments can then better mould their courses to fit what the business community needs today but also, more importantly, what we need tomorrow.”

The Knowledge Transfer Partnership is a sustainable, practical and hugely valuable way to bring graduate talent into your business.

University collaboration as a whole can help your voice to be heard, raise your visibility on campus and enable you to shape the skillsets of tomorrow.

And engaging with students – whether at school, college or University – can transform employment knowledge and choice for young people.

Find out more

Talk to Karen to understand more about University collaboration

Discover why the connection between businesses and academia is so vital

The 5 reasons why any savvy graduate should start their career at an SME


About the author

Tristan Potter

Tristan has a decade's worth of experience writing content and copy for organisations across Bristol and the Southwest of England. He has written on a diverse range of topics, including technology, philosophy, politics, and recruitment. His writing has appeared in The Drum, HR Grapevine, and The Guardian, among other publications. He joined Hireserve in March 2022.