How to beat big businesses in the race for talent

Smaller firms may not have the financial clout of corporate giants, but there are plenty of other ways to attract the best candidates.

by Rebecca Smith
Last Updated: 25 Feb 2016

British jobseekers might be pretty happy at the moment – unemployment is at the lowest rate since January 2006 (5.2%) while vacancies are at a record high (747,000), according to the latest ONS data. Great news for workers, but also a challenge for employers looking to take on new talent. 

Recent figures from the IoD’s 99 network of more than 650 entrepreneurs, found that the growing skills shortage was the most important issue for start-ups struggling to hire the right employees.The battle to hire the right people is fierce.

So, what can small employers do to distinguish themselves from established names and compete effectively for the best talent out there?

Plan for the long-term and show off your assets

The first port of call should be putting together a growth strategy, according to Lee Biggins, the founder and MD of job site CV-Library. ‘With this in mind, business owners can establish who they want to hire and what they will be able to offer candidates,’ he says.

Taking time to plan out the team is important; Biggins thinks it’s clear to jobseekers which firms have scoped out how individuals’ career trajectories could progress. ‘Really selling the opportunity for career advancement is essential,’  he adds. ‘Candidates who know they can grow with a company and have a successful career there are likely to be more interested.’

Om Ruparel, founder and MD of digital recruitment agency agrees. ‘Set out a clear recruitment framework, thorough job descriptions and create an interview process,’ he advises. But don’t bother puffing out your chest to try and appear to be a larger company than you are. Instead, Ruparel suggests focusing on your strengths. ‘Showcase the advantages of being small – faster progression, how well an employee is valued, how hands on and instrumental they are going to be in the company’s development.’

While the bigger names may be scrabbling around to create a workplace environment with perks to rival Google, Biggins feels smaller firms should focus on something perhaps not immediately obvious as such a draw for employees. ‘Our research found that 93% of professionals highly value training and development opportunities,’ he says. ‘While workers do enjoy workplace perks and benefits, many would actually place more importance on development and the chance for career progression – something that small businesses can offer that many larger ones can’t.’

Think about ‘soft’ benefits

With that said, you still want to look like a company people actually want to work for. Without the financial clout of a big business, this may seem out of reach. Not so, according to Ruparel, who says you can still show the caring side of a company through thoughtful offers. ‘Providing a number of "soft benefits" like duvet days, free fruit and regular social events will show you actually think about your staff,’ he says. These are much easier for smaller companies to provide than some of the more common corporate benefits like health insurance, gym memberships and massive pension contributions.

Baringa is a small management consultancy that has focused on its company culture in a bid to better compete with the big boys. Partner Dan Look agrees that little gestures can accomplish a great deal in making a small firm memorable. For its part, Baringa sends champagne to all new joiners ‘to give them a taste of what’s to come’.

The DIY route

If your current approach to recruitment isn’t working and you want to take matters into your own hands, you might want to follow in the footsteps of Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4, a consultancy for charities. ‘We were working to a different model in enterprise development in the charity sector, we knew that we didn’t have a readily available pipeline of talent,’ she says.

Her solution was a significant investment of both time and money – setting up a graduate recruitment programme, which Wright says aims to develop ‘the next generation of leaders’. It’s not perfect by any means; Wright admits to making ‘many mistakes in recruitment’ and it has been considerable work putting in place training, systems and processes to make it sustainable and fruitful.

‘But six years on, we are starting to see the investment pay off’, and the firm has received its Investors in People status. The company’s very first hire on the grad scheme still works there and there’s a training programme supporting graduates from entry level to head of department to enable them to clearly visualise their career progression.

Widen the net

It’s worth remembering that small firms and start-ups are becoming more attractive propositions to ambitious employees too. Stephanie Taylor, a careers consultant at Henley Business School, notes that, ‘There has been a steady increase in the percentage of small and medium-sized businesses hiring MBAs over the last five years.’

This has, in part, been driven by the number of high-growth start-ups which ‘offer exciting opportunities for MBA graduates to exercise their full range of talents which many find more fulfilling than being a small cog in a big wheel’. For firms that want to tap into talent in this way, Taylor suggests appointing ‘a champion internally’ to engage with career services at business schools and universities.

A focus on the advantages of a small company, carving out tailored training opportunities and considering the small gestures you can provide will start moving your firm in the right direction. You could even think about offering a decent chunk of equity if it’s a particularly valuable candidate. If you follow Wright’s path and commit to developing a graduate scheme, you may create a strong enough pipeline of talent meaning you’re less likely to begrudge the odd few who leave anyway.

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