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The perks of working in a small community

By Tor Anderzen posted 09-24-2021 12:20 PM


“Take an offer from a large company, you are wasting your talents at a small company like X.”

That was the advice I received from fellow students when I proudly told them I had accepted an offer to work for a small Michigan firm with an office that I passed going to campus every day.

“You will never get to work on large, exciting projects” was their concern.

Our small family had grown while I attended college, and when I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in civil engineering we had three young children. After strategy sessions with my wife, we decided that accepting the offer to work in our small community would be best for our family: We would be able to stay close to family and friends, and I could complete my master’s while working.

I quickly found that it is not necessarily the size of a firm that matters, and soon I was working on both interesting and complex airfield design and construction tasks. As our office was small, I also found myself attending client meetings within my first few weeks on the job. First to take notes, but soon I knew the county commissioners well and found myself deeply involved in the conversations.

Getting to know the clients also made it easier to understand and accommodate their project needs, and while my employer was focused on aviation projects alone, I found that the commissioners often asked my supervisor, and in time also me, for our advice on other civil projects as well.

I found that having accepted the offer to work in the small community was an excellent opportunity for me to learn the importance of many of the skills so hard to learn in college. How to give presentations to your clients, and how to build your network. By the time I had to renew my green card, one of the commissioners had been elected to the state house of representatives and was happy to provide a reference for my application.

Working in a small community can have its drawbacks, too; when Michigan’s economy started to slow down in 2006, the other EIT and I found ourselves looking for work. Both of us had to relocate to find new opportunities. The opportunity to continue working with aviation planning and design brought my family first to Billings, Montana, and for the past 10 years Palmer, Alaska.

In Billings and Palmer I found in ASCE an excellent avenue to get acquainted with my peers, and I carried with me the lessons learned in Michigan of how important it is to also get to know your community and your client’s communities.

By attending your local town/city and county/borough council meetings you get to know and appreciate the community you live and work in. There are many other great venues that we can use to get to know our communities and to build strong networks, such as the Chamber of Commerce, professional societies, and service organizations.

I have found that knowing my community helps me do my work better, but also that I can become a resource and asset to my community. We civil engineers have a great responsibility to be advocates and stewards of our infrastructure, and working in a small community offers many opportunities to build the networks necessary for that.

Tor Anderzen, P.E., F.ASCE, is a senior aviation engineer for HDL Engineering Consultants LLC, a full-service civil engineering consulting firm. He works with airport planning and design for both municipally and state-owned airports in Alaska. Anderzen is a Region 8 Governor and currently serves on ASCE’s State Government Relations and Grassroots Committee, the Committee on Americas Infrastructure, and the Committee on Preparing the Future Civil Engineer.

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1 comment

09-26-2021 04:18 PM

I definitely think there are big upsides to working for a smaller firm. We've had PEs come to work in our office that are shocked by the breadth of skills our EIs have already developed because they are doing all of the drafting and design work for some very small projects. We had one PE say he was ashamed that coming from a larger company he felt behind our EIs. As I've progressed through my career the scale of the projects I run has increased by a lot. I wouldn't trade my experience for the chance to work at a huge firm. On the other hand, I know people that prefer to be super specialized and really like working on just that particular piece of gigantic projects at much larger firms.