While there will always be large corporations with glamorous graduate programs, the sheer number of students graduating from engineering degrees is far in excess of the positions available in these elusive programs.
Moreover, how can an SME compete with large consulting firms, oil companies and telcos with superior branding, image, and a perceived "cool factor" that rivals that of the sub-zero section on the Top Gear cool wall?
The answer, I believe, lies in flexibility.
Most graduate programs are based upon penultimate-year internships that work as a "try before you buy" arrangement and pathway into the proper graduate program.
Where this model falls apart is that it fails to build relationships with students who are perhaps only a year into their studies, many of which are equally keen and capable of fulfilling the tasks of a full-time graduate role.
Where the flexibility aspect comes into it is being able to use those students in their semester breaks to complete any manner of tasks that may be available. This provides the student with an opportunity to engage with practising professionals, even if it is at a very basic level, and to gain exposure into what true day-to-day tasks, outside of cool-factor branding, they may find themselves doing as engineers.
And their job role doesn't have to be at all technical. It may be as simple as rearranging file structures in your IT system, doing data entry, screwing components together or auditing office equipment.
For the business, this offers a chance to complete tasks which qualified professionals may leave by the wayside due to higher priority tasks. For the student, it's a chance to get a real look into how engineering organisations function and be inspired by the plethora of opportunities that exist outside of the typical graduate program.
And who knows, managers may find a natural sequence for these tasks to lead to more complicated work packages that student interns can carry out. In this case, work can be pre-planned into those semester breaks which further fosters the relationship between the students and the business, leading to the potential for that person to fulfil a full-time role on graduation from their studies.
Events provide the perfect opportunity for SMEs to engage with the student body.
The Australian division of the Royal Aeronautical Society, for example, offers students a pass to an Avalon Air Show trade day at nil cost. In my experience as a student, this leads to massive queues outside of prime contractor booths with flashy aeroplane models where access to practising professionals is blocked by HR representatives.
Or, if you're really lucky, you might get shown directly to an iPad where you enter your details and wait for a generic email directing you to yet another online application, with all the added perks of aptitude testing and box-checking exercises.
But it is exactly this climate that provides SMEs with a chance to capitalise.
By having practicing professionals on hand to engage with trade show participants, and advertising and engaging with students through mechanisms as simple as notice boards and keynote talks, SMEs could be attracting motivated, intelligent and flexible students who simply aren't interested in being herded through endless online testing and video recorded interviews.
Strategies as simple as this are all that is needed to foster a healthy company image amongst the student body, which will only spread further with word-of-mouth.
At the end of the day, there are smart young individuals out there who simply aren't interested in large scale graduate programs, but to engage those people requires more subtle methods that while simple, perhaps aren't so obvious from the business perspective. If you want to attract graduate talent to your SME, make your business approachable and engage students early in their career.
The author's name has been withheld on request. The author is a prominent figure in the Australian defence industry.