A pioneering graduate employment scheme in Edinburgh believes it can promote jobs in small and medium-sized enterprises to 10,000 Scottish graduates a year if it goes nationwide.
Margaret Allan, director of Graduates for Growth, a partnership between commerce and higher education, unveiled plans for a national scheme to an audience of business people and university staff.
Graduates for Growth aims to reach a quarter of graduates each year through careers fairs, presentations and its website. It is seeking £300,000 for its first-year costs from the public and private sectors.
Ms Allan said the non-profit scheme to bring together graduates and SMEs was unique in offering full-time career opportunities, with mentoring and training, rather than just placements.
Andrew Cubie, who chairs the scheme, said SMEs created 90 per cent of new jobs in Scotland. He described a situation in which SMEs could capitalise on graduates' creativity and enthusiasm, while graduates would gain more responsibility and experience than in a blue-chip company.
Bob Porrer, director of student services at Edinburgh University and one of the partners in Graduates for Growth, said it was important for graduates to see the small-business sector as an alternative to employment in big firms. Past initiatives had focused on jobs in the sector for unemployed graduates, but SMEs needed the best to make a real contribution to the economy, he said.
Both sides suffered from a lack of awareness and misconceptions, he said. "Graduates for Growth has been vital in raising the profile of small firms. One of the real problems we have in university careers services is getting publicity from small firms. We are full of brochures from Unilever, Shell and PriceWaterhouseCoopers."
Peter Grant, who runs the residential property management company Grant Management, has employed four graduates through the scheme.
"Graduates for Growth takes time to understand our needs as a business and our long and short-term aspirations," he said. "When you are a small company, growing furiously, there are no comfort zones. Graduates are bright, quick to learn and make a contribution almost from day one."
Mai Moodie, a 23-year-old law graduate who is now one of his employees, said Graduates for Growth helped her structure her CV to the needs of SMEs, took her through mock interviews and continued supporting her in her new job. "It's comforting to know there is somebody independent on the mentoring scheme who can be contacted."
Ms Moodie said the benefits of working at SMEs outweighed those of blue-chip companies. "You have early responsibility and accelerated learning. Job descriptions tend not to be rigid, and you feel what you do affects the growth of the company," she said.
Nicol Stephen, Scotland's deputy minister for enterprise and lifelong learning, said Graduates for Growth could play a big role in developing an enterprise culture. He praised its "positive contribution" towards ensuring a diverse flow of graduates into the SME sector, which, he said, could often be a springboard for graduates forming their own businesses.