Comment: Small firms can make big difference

WHEN it comes to jobs, numbers matter. Regardless of whether a business is adding or shedding staff, the limelight is nearly always reserved for those totting up the largest totals – the bigger the better.

The closure of the likes of the Johnnie Walker plant in Kilmarnock was decried as an almost personal betrayal of the 700 employees there, while the threat to some 1,400 jobs at loss-making Prestwick Airport prompted intervention by the Scottish Government.

At the other end of the spectrum, the creation of nearly 300 posts in Edinburgh and Glasgow by Tesco Bank was hailed as a sign of confidence in the “robust skills and talent of the Scottish workforce”. The possibility of 1,500 new jobs at a biotechnology centre in Glasgow raised similar plaudits.

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It’s a natural inclination, but one that overlooks a large swathe of the employment picture. This is particularly true in Scotland, where small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) account for nearly 55 per cent of all private sector jobs.

Big numbers make for high drama and good headlines, but when it comes to sheer grit, it’s hard to imagine anything more thrilling – and daunting – than hiring your very first employee.

Most who are self-employed have grown comfortable with the fact that their fate rests almost entirely in their own hands. Work hard, get the job done, and with a fair wind at your back all will be well.

Taking responsibility for another’s livelihood is a different proposition altogether. Is another salary affordable? What if work dries up? How do you find the right person? These are acute questions for a sole operator, whose business has little if any ballast to fend off major tumult.

The Federation of Small Businesses estimates that 7 per cent of Scottish SMEs expect to increase staff numbers in the coming quarter, a significant contrast to the 8 per cent reporting declining employment in the previous three months.

In theory, that would equate to more than 23,000 new jobs. But some 70 per cent of Scotland’s smallest firms – those with no more than 49 staff – are actually comprised of the self-employed, who face the biggest challenges in taking that first step.

This is where programmes such as the Hand Picked initiative have bridged the gap for people such as Colin Shipton, who has run website design business Intrafusion on his own for nearly nine years.

Set up by CR Smith chairman Gerard Eadie, Hand Picked places young jobseekers in three months of paid employment. The business has no commitment beyond that, but Shipton has already agreed to take on his Hand Picked apprentice, 24-year-old Melissa Hendry, on a permanent basis.

If every small firm in Scotland followed that example, unemployment would be wiped out nearly twice over. Might be that it’s time to think small in the quest for big results.