Roger Trapp on a scheme that aims to bring together students and small businesses to their mutual advantage
Graduates are increasingly shying away from the companies that traditionally make up the "milk round" of universal and medium-sized companies. According to recent surveys, they want to "make a difference" by working in smaller enterprises. The problem is that because such organisations tend to lack the resources to promote themselves, the graduates have difficulty finding them.

In recent years, however, a programme backed by the oil company Shell has helped to bring the two together. The Shell Technology Enterprise Programme, which has just reached its 10th anniversary, organises eight- week placements with businesses employing fewer than 200 employees for students at the end of their second year at university. The idea is that the small firm, which pays half of the student's weekly training allowance of at least pounds 100, gains by having a practical benefit, while the student gains real-life experience to back up his or her studies.

Many of those who have been through the programme, which is now backed by the Department of Trade and Industry, say that it has opened up their eyes to the possibilities of working in lesser-known companies, while some have even been offered work by the companies in which they did their placement.

Simon Jackson, who won the prize for best information technology project in this year's awards, so impressed the founders of the East Midlands- based electronic graphics company Procyon that they are talking with his tutors about him continuing to work for them while he completes his electronic imaging and media studies at Bradford University.

Mr Jackson used his expertise in multimedia to create sites on the World Wide Web for clients of the company.

Other projects tended to be less dramatic, but were often no less far- reaching for that. Nearly all the students who reached the finals held at London's New Connaught Rooms last week told the judges they had seen their communication skills and confidence grow.

They were also able to point to clear tangible benefits for their host companies - many of whom, they acknowledged, would not have been able to embark on these exercises if they had not had access to a cheap member of staff for a limited period of time.

For example, two Birmingham University mechanical engineering students were able to make significant improvements to the productivity and, hence, profitability of the companies with which they spent the summer.

Laura Tattershall had to use her "interpersonal" abilities to conduct time-and-motion studies on the workers of Medisafe, manufacturers of ultrasonic cleaners based in the south of England, before coming up with such basic - but effective - solutions as lowering workbenches, buying a Black and Decker "Workmate" in order to hold sheet metal in place, and tidying up tools.

Janice Vickers, who was presented with the best manufacturing company award, had to negotiate with suppliers as part of her project to improve the efficiency of an assembly area at a north-east truck gearbox maker called Eaton. As well as asking the suppliers to send components packed for easy use rather than tangled up in a sack as before, she also re-arranged the layout of the plant in order to reduce the distances that workers had to walk while putting the parts together.

Though the scheme is primarily aimed at technology projects, it also included more wide-ranging business projects. William Hogg of Plymouth University, for instance, found himself examining the household and industrial waste market when he embarked on a feasibility study for a company that wanted to make better use of its wharf facilities on the Isle of Wight.

And in Scotland, Craig Flynn won the best marketing project award for devising an insurance plan aimed at members of social clubs for an insurance broker that was seeing business hurt by changes in the financial services industry.

Many of the students were given much greater responsibility than they could have expected. Accordingly, Julie Gilroy was asked by the directors of a Northern Ireland sheet metal company to select a computer system - even though, as a student of marketing and languages, she had no special knowledge of the area.

Mark Smith, who was named the UK's Most Enterprising Student for his work at the cleaning chemicals manufacturer Autosmart, does know about computers through reading computer science and software at Birmingham University. But he found himself telling the company not to go ahead with plans for buying a new computer system on the grounds that it would not suit their requirements.

Instead, he set about upgrading the existing one and at the same time trained operators to obtain the best from it. He, too, has been asked to return to the company to see through some of his recommendations.

Though all these projects - and the others that made up this year's record- breaking total of 1,400 around the country - were hard work, there was clearly time for some light-heartedness as well. Alistair Collins, a chemistry student at the University of Wales, Bangor, who reached the national final for his work on developing a scheme to make sea salt at Anglesey Sea Zoo, revealed that he had helped to win over fellow staff by agreeing to dress up in an animal suit for the entertainment of visitors.