I always enjoy visiting businesses in my constituency, getting to know something about what they do and understanding both the opportunities and the difficulties which they face.

There are several thousand different firms in my patch, from one man or woman enterprises to companies employing hundreds of people. So I was delighted to get an invitation from ProspectSoft, based in Stokenchurch, to call in to see them.

ProspectSoft is a family-owned enterprise that supplies software, with a particular focus on business software for small and medium sized companies.

It’s an achievement to create a successful firm from nothing and build it up to a situation in which it’s generating wealth and providing employment. But ProspectSoft had something more to show me. They’ve deliberately set out to offer opportunities each year for university work placement students to spend twelve months with the company.

Now a lot of big firms do this, but it’s more unusual to see SMEs making provision for placements an integral part of their way of doing business. At ProspectSoft, about a fifth of staff are placement students and another fifth former placements who were offered permanent jobs after graduation.

This approach seems to be working well, bringing benefits both to the company and to the student employees themselves. During my visit, I spent a fair bit of time talking to this year’s placements and to their (slightly) older colleagues who’d started off that way. With no senior managers in sight, they all said that they’d really enjoyed their time at the firm. They said that they’d not just been lumbered with dogsbody jobs but given some real responsibilities. Their enthusiasm was not forced, but genuine.

As the CEO told me later, a placement student in an enterprising medium-sized business would spend time working with the company’s top management, something that was very unlikely to happen in a big firm, and would also get to know all aspects of the company’s business. The placement students themselves talked about how they’d gained enormously in self-confidence and in business skills as a result of the experience.

The company has won three national awards: a National Undergraduate Employability Award, Best Small to Medium Enterprise Placement Provider and Best Work Experience Provider.

If our country is to compete successfully in with the best in the world, we need to be working continually to improve the skills of our workforce. Government can help, with initiatives like the tax break for small businesses that take on an apprentice. What ProspectSoft shows is that well-structured work placements can be a win-win for employer and employee alike.

It’s an impressive model, and one that I hope many other SMEs follow.