Small companies are fertile ground for job seekers

April 22, 2011, 3:11 PM UTC

By Anne Fisher, contributor

FORTUNE — Dear Annie: Because of a career change my husband made, we recently moved to a new city hundreds of miles from where we used to live, and I’m now trying to find a job here. I’ve spent my whole 19-year marketing career so far at two Fortune 500 companies, which was great experience, but this town has no big employers. It does have many small ones, including some interesting startups that seem to be growing fast.

So what I’m wondering is, do hiring managers at small companies look askance at former middle managers from huge corporations? Is there anything I should emphasize in job interviews to increase my chances of getting hired? — No Bureaucrat

Dear NB: As you probably already know, businesses with fewer than 500 employees, which currently employ about half of the private-sector workforce, have been the main engines of U.S. job creation over the past 15 years, generating more than 70% of all net new jobs. Like their bigger brethren, small companies cut way back on hiring during the recession, but that’s changing fast.

Consider: 54% of CEOs at small companies plan to add headcount over the next 12 months, up markedly from 46% last September, according to a Vistage quarterly survey called the CEO Confidence Index.

Meanwhile, the National Federation of Independent Business reports that its members have already stepped up hiring over the past two months. “The positive job creation observed in February was repeated in March (sigh of relief here),”  said William F. Dunkelberg, chief economist for the National Federation of Independent Business, in a press release on NFIB’s economic survey. “[Small business] employment gains have not been this good since 2007.”

The most robust job growth may be occurring at the tiniest firms. Companies with fewer than 50 full-time employees hired 117,000 people last month, their biggest hiring surge since 2006, notes a new poll by payroll and employee benefits giant ADP.

So right now, broadening any job hunt to include itty-bitty enterprises is smart.

Tim Schoonover, CEO of executive coaching and talent development firm OI Partners, has a few suggestions about how to get hired at a company that may have fewer total employees than a single department at the giant company where you used to work.

First, it really does depend on whom you know. “Smaller companies are far less likely than big ones to advertise openings or post them on Internet job boards,” Schoonover says. “Instead, opportunities tend to surface at in-person meetings of networking and professional groups, or you’ll come across them through volunteering with nonprofits or civic organizations.”

So your first task, especially since you’re new in town, is to get out there and rub elbows with as many people as possible. “Referrals play an especially central role in small-business hiring,” Schoonover adds. “A recommendation from a valued employee, or someone else who is close to the owner or manager, will go a long way.”

He has a point: In a recent survey by SurePayroll, 65% of small business owners named referrals as their no. 1 source of new hires.

It’s interesting that you signed yourself “No Bureaucrat” because, according to Schoonover, your first hurdle in an interview will probably be to prove that you’re not one. “It’s important to establish during interviews at small companies that you can make an impact and deliver results right away,” he says.

Be ready to talk about a situation — or, better yet, several — in your big-company past where you energized a small team to achieve a specific tangible goal in a short time. “Focus the discussion on what the company might need that you can deliver right away, and during your first three to six months on the job,” he suggests.

Of course, this isn’t a bad thing to do in any interview, no matter the company’s size, but “achieving results quickly and making a swift impact on sales and profits are especially vital to small businesses,” Schoonover notes.

Likewise, knowledge about the company, and enthusiasm for what it does, both matter even more at a small firm than at a large one. That’s partly because “smaller businesses may be sensitive about the fact that you held higher positions with bigger companies in the past, and earned more than they’re able to pay you,” he says.

Describing in detail why you’re attracted to this particular company, and what specifically appeals to you about the position, will help alleviate that concern — while also implying that you’re planning to stick around for a while and won’t jump at the next big-company (and perhaps big-paycheck) opportunity that comes along.

One more thing to keep in mind, says Schoonover, is that small companies are even more inclined than big ones to try people out on a contract or temporary basis before hiring them.

“Be receptive to contract work,” he advises. “If a potential employer says they don’t have an opening at the moment, find out what they do need to get done and negotiate to do that for them. If you produce great results, it could very well lead to a full-time job.”

Even if not, you’d end up with a bit of small-company experience to add to your resume, which in turn could help you get hired somewhere else. Happy hunting!

Talkback: Have you ever made the move from a huge company to a much smaller one? If you do any hiring at a small company, what would make you hesitate (or not) to bring on someone with a big-corporation background? Leave a comment below.

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