Work experience: large organisations vs SMEs

SMEs vs larger corporates: what type of company offers the best work experience opportunities?

Girl with question marks Both large companies and small to medium enterprises (SMEs) can provide equally valuable opportunities to those on work experience, however there can be differences in the types of work you'll get to undertake. With that in mind it is important to think about what you want to gain from your placements when deciding which companies to apply to.

Of course the best course of action would be to take on a range of placements at different sized establishments, as a solutions engineer at Zonith UK highlights.

"Small companies will normally give you more responsibility but large companies will be working on bigger projects and have a more formal training structure," they say. "Try to work for both!"

Benefits of choosing work experience at an SME

There does seem to be a student perception that larger companies must be better, that they look better on a CV and that they automatically offer greater potential for advancement, but this isn't always true. Work experience with an SME can be unique in the range of skills acquired and the amount of responsibility provided as you may end up doing a more diverse range of activities and get more involved in the day-to-day running of a business.

"The size of the company can have an effect on the student's perspective of what is like to work in the industry," says quality, process and training director at Tharsus. "As Tharsus is probably a smaller scale engineering company in comparison to other firms nationally, I would say that the benefits of our work experience is that we are able to provide greater responsibility and involvement than what may be possible at a much larger engineering firm."

SMEs also often have a less hierarchical structure than larger organisations, offering more opportunities to work directly with senior managers.

"Many students only approach SMEs for work experience when they fail to secure a placement with a larger company, but students who work for smaller companies quickly realise that they are able to make an impact in a way that may not be possible in a big company. You might find that you have the ear of the CEO or the managing director in an SME because you can get to know them personally. Having an impact on the decision making process at intern level is practically unheard of in the corporate world," says City University London's Professional Liaison Unit.

"It is likely that after time you will be able to manage projects in their entirety in a smaller company, this can be very satisfying. You will also get an overview of what is happening across the organisation and you may be exposed to a greater range of tasks," the unit adds.

Benefits of choosing work experience at a large organisation

Placements with larger companies do tend to be more structured and there are often opportunities to rotate through different parts of the business. You may also get to participate in extensive training and development schemes and gain additional, vocationally relevant qualifications.

"With increased resources, more departments and greater geographical spread you may find the role to be more varied and opportunities such as overseas travel more readily available in a larger organisation," says work experience business manager at Graduate Prospects." As well as the kudos of working for a well-known brand, larger schemes take on quite a big number of students so they may have more social and extra curricular activities. There may also be a more structured system of mentoring, feedback and review."

Clearly there are benefits to taking work experience placements at all sizes of business, as each company will provide a whole new set of experience and opportunities. The key is to find out what you want to gain from the experience and research any companies to find out what they offer before applying for a placement.

Every placement you take will help you further your career opportunities, but the more varied the placements, the more likely you are to gain a wider range of skills and experience.