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Unlocking the SME market to expand WIL opportunities and help bridge the talent gap

24 July, 2023 | by Gavin Fleer, Executive Director, Employability & John McPhee, Associate Director, Work Integrated Learning

Work Integrated Learning (WIL) is gaining increasing recognition for its role in enhancing employability outcomes. It benefits students, industry partners and universities alike, as highlighted in the Australian Universities Accord Panel Discussion Paper.

The rising momentum behind WIL is driven by a desire to ensure that graduates are entering the workforce “job ready” with the right skills. In today’s increasingly competitive and specialised job market, employers face significant difficulties in identifying candidates who possess the specific skills and practical experience required to excel within their organisations.

Closing the talent gap

According to Gavin Fleer, OES Executive Director, Employability, the quest to find the right talent is an ongoing concern that weighs heavily on employers, particularly smaller businesses. It can be like searching for a needle in a haystack, with small and medium enterprises (SMEs) facing a daunting challenge due to their lower corporate profile (compared with larger organisations) coupled with widespread skills shortages. The scarcity of job ready, qualified candidates has become an increasingly pressing issue, with a 75% of Australian CEOs expressing concern about the availability of key skills in the workforce. (1)

This leaves many employers challenged to find suitable staff, resulting in 25% of small and medium businesses indicating they struggle to attract applicants. (2) In fact, a recent survey revealed that almost one-third of Australian small businesses with 10 to 49 employees are grappling with the challenge of attracting the necessary skills to drive their growth. (3) This struggle is a recurring theme that echoes across the SME landscape, leaving these businesses desperately seeking solutions to secure the talent they need to thrive in today’s competitive market.

The importance of addressing these talent acquisition challenges cannot be overstated. For SMEs, success hinges on their ability to access the right individuals who possess the skills, mindset, and drive to contribute meaningfully to their operations. Without this vital talent pipeline, small businesses can find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to fully capitalise on growth opportunities and to navigate the ever-evolving demands of their respective industries.

Fostering collaboration

“Considering these pressing concerns, it becomes increasingly apparent that collaborative efforts between universities and SMEs offer a significant opportunity. By joining forces, these entities can pool their resources, networks, and expertise to create a symbiotic partnership that addresses the talent gap.”

“Collaborative partnerships between universities and SMEs hold the key to a mutually beneficial relationship. Universities, committed to equipping students with industry-relevant skills, require` assistance in expanding their industry connections, especially for the benefit of unique cohorts like international and non-traditional students. These student groups often face additional barriers accessing work experience, including challenges in developing and accessing industry connections and networks.” Gavin explains.

He adds “Conversely, SMEs seek support in accessing and securing the right talent, and they increasingly value non-traditional candidates who offer unique perspectives and capabilities. By collaborating with universities, SMEs can tap into a diverse talent pool that encompasses students from various backgrounds, unlocking their untapped potential. This not only enables them to find qualified candidates who align with their specific needs but also provides invaluable opportunities for students to gain real-world experience and enhance their employability.”

The symbiotic relationship between SMEs and students creates a dynamic ecosystem, where students receive practical training and exposure to real industry settings, while SMEs gain access to a talent pipeline infused with fresh perspectives, energy and innovative thinking.

Breaking down collaboration limitations

However, Gavin explains, “We must address the current constraints limiting effective collaboration between universities and SMEs. The key constraints are twofold. First, SMEs often lack the experience and bandwidth to partner with universities. They may not have the resources or infrastructure to navigate the complexities of engaging with several academic institutions. Second, universities face challenges in liberating sufficient bandwidth to engage with a large number of SMEs, compared with partnering with a smaller number of larger organisations. This can limit the scalability of collaborations and hinder the establishment of meaningful relationships.”

John McPhee, OES Associate Director, Work Integrated Learning emphasises here that “having the right industry and employer partners is integral to a successful WIL program. There must be alignment between the student’s program of study and the opportunities provided by the industry.” He recommends universities aim for a wide range of employer partners across government, not-for-profits, start-ups, SMEs and large corporates.

Strong relationships with diverse industry partners ensure WIL placements are meaningful and truly engage students. The best WIL programs deliver tangible benefits for the student, the university and employer, while also uplifting the industry workforce more broadly.

Help unlocking the potential of SMEs to scale WIL

Ultimately, scaling Work Integrated Learning requires a collaborative effort. In line with this goal, OES in conjunction with Gradability (one of Australia’s largest internship providers) has recently launched its innovative WIL solution. Drawing from extensive experience working with a large number of SMEs, we successfully source impactful internships for students, having placed more than 30,000 students with over 12,000 industry partners.

Get in touch with our team today to explore how our collaboration can support your institution in scaling impactful Work Integrated Learning programs.


1. PwC Australia. (2018). “Digital Pulse: CEO Survey – Skills Shortage.” Available at: [].

2. MYOB research analysis. (2021). “Australia’s SMEs: A Snapshot.” [PDF]. Available at: [].

3. Optus. (2022). “Recruitment Strategies for SMB.” [PDF]. Available at: [].