Feature article

How SMEs can attract top talent with career growth opportunities

Job hunters told us they value career pathways most - so how can SME employers talk about this in job interviews?

Career prospects is the main motivation for job hunters, Trade Me Jobs’s Annual Job Market Insights Report showed. This means for SMEs (small to medium sized enterprises), successfully showing they are able to offer interesting career prospects in the interview may help attract high quality talent. 

Use these questions to find a candidate’s ‘why’

Kaye Avery, director of CareerEQ career management specialists, has been both a recruiter and now a careers coach. When she was in recruiting, an open-ended question she would often ask in interviews was: “What matters to you in life?”

That opens the floor to something meaningful, says Kaye. It might be work-life balance, it might be ‘helping my mates on my team’, or it might be, ‘I want to make a difference in the world’ - all useful information for employers to know when looking to develop their people.

Another good question to ask in the interview is: ‘What really floats your boat at work?’ This has many layers - it shows a candidate's values and what they enjoy at work and do well.

Meaningful gestures can mean as much as more classic indicators of success

“You’ve got to use your imagination and tick boxes for them that are meaningful,” explains Kaye. She remembers an executive who was working for a sustainable product business. The employer couldn’t give her extra staff to support her, but gave her a pay increase and the title of Social Good manager. This made her feel that she had some say. 

Offering career coaching can be an option to existing and new hires, and help create a longer term career plan, she adds. Coaching will be about finding something meaningful, longer term and that fits with who they are and their potential. Their personal development has got to come into work development too.

“When people are enjoying their job and it’s meaningful for them, then they’re likely to stay,” says the CareerEQ director. 

Small can be even more impactful when it comes to employee opportunity

It’s easy to argue that larger companies can offer job hunters clearer career development and a faster upward trajectory than smaller businesses; but Erin Kelly, principal consultant at boutique tech recruitment agency Socialite NZ, says small businesses have their advantages.

A small company may have projects which indicate there’s a high likelihood that the organisation will grow. So it could be a good time for someone to join the firm and benefit from the expected future opportunities, she explains. 

“We speak to people who love a start up,” says Erin. “They like the idea of going into a company when it’s small and flat, getting involved in the nuts and bolts, and having a lot of diversity in their role.”

In a small organisation, an employee may have more of a say in the strategy and planning and become more of a flag waver for the organisation, says the recruiter. By comparison, in a large organisation, employees are more likely to be silo-ed in their role, they’re further from being involved in the strategy and bigger picture, she argues.

Don't underestimate the pull of interesting work

Debbie Woollams from proHR, specialises in employment advocacy and providing HR support to small businesses, but worked in a number of large businesses including Fletcher Building, SkyCity and Fonterra.

Debbie says that what many employers miss or assume is that candidates and employees want a career pathway in a company hierarchy. But this is not necessarily the case. “What they want is for their work to be interesting and to have diversity in what they do.”

She says larger companies tend to put employees in their areas of specialty, whereas smaller employers can retain people and keep them motivated if they let them try new things.

“It’s good for small businesses to have people who are multi-skilled and it helps them retain people if they’re learning new things. If these employees become good at something new, that’s the type of reward they’re looking for, not the promotion.”  

Being open-minded and outsourcing can help you grow your employees’ skills faster

Learning and Development (L&D) company, Skills Consulting Group (SCG) offers all kinds of classes and programmes to take employees down a myriad of career routes. 

Gwyn Thomas, Director of Product Innovation and Quality at SCG, hears from small businesses that they face challenges getting the right people and then retaining them. 

“What we do is [help] create career pathways, like a roadmap for someone who gets a taste for learning,” explains Gwyn. For instance, they might start in culinary arts or hospitality as a learner and end up being a business owner themselves.In this case, the pathway will include a financial management programme because these skills are really critical for business ownership. 

It may be that people don’t have the fundamental skills to move up in a workplace, such as numeracy and literacy, and the SCG’s Piki Ake programme helps with this.

Some courses are in the leadership space, run with the Institute of Management NZ (IMNZ). One is on first-time line management, for instance, an employee might be in their first team leader role and they need training in communications and in problem-solving. 

“These are skills you might call soft or transferrable skills.These are less tangible but important for people to have as they develop in their role or career,” says Gwyn. 

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Gill South