Graduates providing a pipeline to prosperity for region

March 7, 2022

The University of Sunderland is further rolling out a skills scheme aimed at helping hundreds of graduates get into work or launch self-employment ventures. The £6 million Internships and Enterprise project, part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund, provides a range of support measures to students, as well as funding to SMEs to recruit a graduate intern.


Graduates are our future business leaders.

They play an important role in supporting the health and growth of our regional economy, and encouraging them to stay in the region is vital to both.

The University of Sunderland has an excellent track record in delivering programmes of support with graduate employability and retention in the region at their heart.

One such pioneering scheme is the £6 million Internships and Enterprise project, which is aimed at getting hundreds of graduates into work and self- employment.

Launched in late 2018 and currently part-funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the scheme delivers a wide range of support to both budding student and graduate entrepreneurs looking to start up, as well as funding to SMEs to recruit a graduate intern.

By the time the ERDF funding comes to an end in 2023, the enterprise strand of the project will have supported at least 115 businesses to start up, with many more students having been encouraged to explore business ideas and develop entrepreneurial skills, in the process supporting their employability.

Enterprise co-ordinator Jenny Westgate says: “We are always so impressed with the business ideas coming through from our students and graduates, and have seen the pipeline of ideas continue right through the pandemic.

“All have different needs in terms of the support required.

“We are all about removing barriers to start up – sometimes a small amount of seed funding makes all the difference; in other cases, it is about the idea validation and practical business advice.”

A key driver of the Internships and Enterprise project is to fuel regional SME growth by supporting businesses to recruit a graduate intern.

At the start of 2021, SMEs accounted for three fifths of the employment, and around half of turnover, in the UK private sector*.

The sector is, therefore, well placed to provide interesting, graduate-level roles with the opportunity for progression. It plays a key part in retaining graduate talent in the region.

So far, since the project’s start, £620,105 of ERDF cash has been awarded to North East SMEs, with each receiving up to £4500 towards the salary of the graduate they employed.

By summer 2022, the internship scheme will have placed 244 graduates into full-time roles within growing SMEs, earning an average salary of £20,000.

Graduates typically bring fresh ideas into those organisations, as well as a new perspective, and often help deliver a new product, process or service for the business.

After 12 months, employers can decide whether to extend the intern’s contract, and most do, with a high rate of graduates being offered full-time employment on completion of their internship.

Project manager Laura Foster says: “It’s been a well- documented difficult and uncertain time for businesses over the last couple of years, and our project helps SMEs in a really practical way with help towards graduate’s salary costs.

“We have many talented graduates coming out of our North East universities, and we would urge any business looking to recruit in the coming months to consider our graduate internship scheme before the opportunity to access the European funding comes to an end this summer.”

There are many success stories to have come out of the project and the internships team regularly receives positive feedback from SMEs and graduates who have benefited.

One such example is Sunderland-based IGNIFI, which has a long-standing relationship with the university and accessing talent via the graduate internship scheme.

When the business moved to Sunderland in 2016, it was determined to build connections with the university.

It was introduced to the graduate internship scheme and employed its first intern in mid-2017.

Since then, it has employed two more staff through the programme.

Finance director Rob Phillips says: “We highly recommend the scheme.

“It is the ideal way to bring new talent into our business, with interns being able to forge a career with IGNIFI following the completion of their internship.

“Graduates often bring a real drive and enthusiasm to learn, and this can often lift, challenge and motivate their colleagues.

“The time required in mentoring and training interns has been very worthwhile, as we have benefited from them progressing to become valuable key members of the team.”

The opportunity is equally rewarding for IGNIFI intern Ellie Gratton.

She says: “Since joining IGNIFI as a graduate, I’ve learned a vast amount in a short space of time. “Being mentored and trained by experienced individuals has given me insight across many aspects of the business, as well as hands-on experience from day one.”

Metaltech Services Limited is another SME to have benefited.

In support of its growth plans, the company recruited University of Sunderland engineering graduates Arran Ledger and Marc Erwin as test engineers.

Both have brought an enthusiastic approach to their work, which has had a positive impact on the business, with their up-to-date academic knowledge supporting various research and development projects.

Managing director Louise Scott says: “Aside from the obvious benefits of receiving funding toward the salary costs, the support with the actual recruitment process has been brilliant.

“The team at Sunderland responded really quickly to the initial enquiry and has been supportive throughout, making it really easy to find the right graduate.”

Successful SMEs joining the scheme gain access to the university’s recruitment specialists, who can provide support throughout the whole process.

The team actively engages graduates, identifying specific skills, competencies and talent to complement business goals.