22 Mar 2014
It is interesting to note that whenever the role of universities in supporting innovation in the UK economy is discussed, the first actions to be proposed will almost certainly be to look to further commercialise the results of university research and to build collaborative research links between universities and businesses.
While I would not deny that this is part of an overall solution, our experience of working with Small and Medium Sized Enterprises (SMEs) at the University of Sunderland suggests there is relatively low innovation capacity in many SMEs for such activity.
What we are seeing far more of is innovation for SMEs via increased ‘brain power’ as one business described it at a recent event. By this I mean adding new talent to the business to help take forward new ideas and methods of working.
Having the right people with the right skills at the right time is crucial to businesses who want to innovate and grow. SMEs find this much harder than large companies with HR structures in place to organise graduate recruitment schemes. Like many universities we have run internship schemes in various forms since the start of the economic downturn in 2009 so we have several years’ experience to draw on. Actually the term internship here is a misnomer. This is not graduates giving their time for free but structured 6-month first graduate-level positions paid at roughly the average graduate starting salary for our region. We would use another term if a suitable simple alternative existed – but we are yet to find one!
What we are seeing at the moment is unprecedented demand from SMEs for interns under our SME Internships scheme as a way of increasing their innovation capacity and winning new contracts and new customers. This scheme which is funded by the European Regional Development Fund does provide a wage subsidy of approximately 50% for up to 6 months, but what we are finding is that it is not just the subsidy that is switching on SMEs. What they really value is the help that the university can give them to write a suitable role profile, advertise the position to our recent graduates, identify the right candidates for the position and generally manage the graduate recruitment process on their behalf.
SMEs tell us that this direct graduate recruitment assistance is the part of the scheme that is really appreciated because it massively increases the chances of finding the right skills to add to the SME workforce without the fear of expending a great deal of money, time and effort. We know that this is working because over three quarters of the graduates are offered permanent jobs at the end of their initial 6 month contracts.
So while university spinouts, graduate start-ups and collaborative research all have their place in innovation we would argue strongly for an equal acknowledgment of the role of adding skills at the right time through recent graduates who might otherwise be unemployed or under-employed in part-time roles.
Let’s leave the last word to an employer Dave Glynn CEO at 4th Aspect, an online marketing company. Speaking about his intern, he said:
“We could not be happier with Michael’s performance and he is a credit to the university, 4th Aspect and the North East’s software industry as a whole.”
David Donkin, Assistant Director of Business Services, University of Sunderland
Image: Staff from online marketing company 4th Aspect, including Dave Glyn Founding Director (far right), celebrate Junior Developer Michael Simpson (centre) winning the University of Sunderland Intern of the Year Award