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Big vs. Small Engineering Firms: Which One Is Best for Your Career?

By Zaid Admani posted 01-03-2019 06:30 PM


Many engineering students look forward to the day when their hard work and long hours studying will pay off in a job offer.

When deciding on what job to accept, you may have considered factors such as pay, benefits, location, and company culture. Another factor that should be considered is the size of the firm you plan on joining.

The size of the firm you join can have a significant influence not only on your day-to-day responsibilities but also on your career advancement.

Here are some pros and cons of working at large and small engineering firms to help you decide which might be right for you.

Large Engineering Firms

Let’s define large engineering firms as those with more than 1,000 employees. Many of these firms are publicly traded on the stock market.

Pros: The biggest advantage of working for a large engineering firm is structure. Your role is well-defined, and you will receive training that has been fine-tuned from years of experience. Your position will include specific responsibilities that will be clearly outlined. There will be a predefined "corporate ladder" with multiple paths you can follow to advance your career. This ladder will probably have set timelines, so you know what to expect in the near- and long-term.

You will also have more resources, such as access to industry-leading software and exposure to industry experts with decades of experience. The exposure to seasoned engineers will allow you to ask them questions and learn from their experience (and mistakes). This will also allow you to grow your network as you work with multiple people across the company.

Cons: Large firms tend to be more bureaucratic, which means you might have to get permissions from your manager's boss for approval on things that may strike you as trivial. Additionally, large firms often have strict rules and processes in place that might not allow for innovation or be a welcoming environment for new ideas. You could become a small fish in a big pond, a number on a spreadsheet. You might rarely see or interact with key decision makers in the company. That can make it difficult to stand out.

Finally, your role can be very limited. You might only be working on one specific task for the first two years of your career, and may not get a chance to wear multiple hats. Your impact on the company or a project might not seem as noticeable.

Small Engineering Firms

We’re defining small engineering firms as those with fewer than 50 employees, usually owned by one or two people.

Pros: Small firms can be a fantastic place for a young engineer to learn. Because of a smaller staff, young engineers can gain responsibilities early in their careers. Your role at the company is loosely defined and could require you to wear multiple hats. All this can be an invaluable experience for young engineers, and an opportunity for growth. You daily work can have a more noticeable impact on projects, which can be a source of pride and confidence.  

At a smaller firm, you will likely know all the employees – everyone from the owner of the firm to the receptionist. Exposure to key decision makers (and sometimes the actual owner) can allow your work to shine and quickly move up the chain to a higher position in the firm. This environment can also allow for more innovation and experimentation with new ideas. You will have the opportunity to pitch your ideas to decision makers and the opportunity for the idea to come to fruition.

Cons: Small firms tend to lack resources compared with bigger firms. This could mean that you won’t have access to the latest engineering software or in-house experts to ask questions. Additionally, smaller firms might not have the resources to provide the best training, and instead choose to go the route of “learn on the job.”

Smaller firms also tend to have fewer employee benefits than larger firms. This could mean having to pay higher insurance premiums for a lower quality insurance plan, or smaller 401k match.

Which Is Right for You?

You probably noticed that my definition of large and small firms leaves out firms that have between 50 and 1,000 employees. I consider these to be mid-size firms. These firms typically provide the best-case scenario for many engineers. Mid-size firms will allow you to have similar resources and stability as a big firm, but can also give you the flexibility of being more involved with projects and wearing multiple hats, which can accelerate your learning.

Regardless of what firm you decide to join, keep in mind that you will excel as long as you approach your job with a good attitude and open-mindedness to learn. If you find yourself in an unfavorable situation, then refer to these pros and cons and consider whether the company size should be considered when searching for a new job.

Zaid Admani, PE is a Civil Engineer working in Texas. Zaid is passionate in helping young engineer navigate the expanding Civil Engineer industry and show them how they can have an impact at work and in their communities. Zaid is also studying how rapid technological innovation is changing the Civil Engineering and Construction industry and how it will have a substantial impact on our jobs and communities.

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02-06-2019 11:06 PM

Stephanie, I completely agree with you. I do believe young engineers getting exposure to big firm training can be beneficial. Developing confidence is crucial to be a successful engineer and exposure to a big firm could provide an environment to develop that.

You make a great point about direct managers having a big influence on your career. Many young engineers are probably unaware of this. Unfortunately, it can be difficult for engineers (especially young engineers) to know if they are walking into a situation with a bad manager, and many times it can be impossible to know until you've started working for a few months.

02-06-2019 01:45 PM

This assessment is spot on, thank you Zaid for sharing! I'd like to add that the importance of the pros and cons of both will change throughout your career as well.

Coming right out of school, I loved the atmosphere of a large firm. The training and the ability to work with a lot of different manager styles and gain exposure to the different project types was awesome, and I was too busy learning the ropes of the field to care too much about bureaucracy. In my opinion, if you were like me and didn't know exactly where you wanted to "land" in the field coming out of school, you will benefit most from a large firm starting out because you can gain exposure to so many different things.

Once I gained more experience and was confident in my skills and project management capabilities, a small firm became a better fit for me at the point as I wanted more autonomy and direct access to decision-makers, as well as a faster - and less bureaucratic - potential advancement path. The pros and cons didn't change, but what I thought was most important for me did. I point this out because what may be right for one person at the start of their career may not be right 5 years in, and may change again at 10 years experience.  

Regardless of the size of firm, the attributes of your direct manager are much more important than the firm size. If you've found someone who will advocate for you and mentor you, the size of the firm isn't nearly as important.

02-01-2019 01:00 PM

Additionally, seeking professional registration should be an integral part of one's professional development strategy.  So, keeping in mind that the most appealling job (candidates/interviewees) will seem more likely to be able to come into a company and make money for said company as soon after being hired as possible, after a minmum of trainning.  Such qualifications are rare among recent graduates.  So, good places to start engineering careers also include State, County, and large City engineering positions, because they routinely involve a rotation between positions for a year or two, or more. Such (training) tends to be under a larger number of supervisory engineers who each will then be willing to be one of the five or six registered engineers willing to vouch for you as having the necessary years of (increasingly responsible professional engineering experience).  Smaller companies might only have two or three such engineers (Because of that regulation, it took me 5 years to get the necessary 2 years experience, but it made me better engineer in the process...)  
So, just stay aware of those kind of trade-offs...

01-20-2019 11:43 PM

Communication and working well with others is a key attribute for engineers. I've worked with some of the sharpest engineers, but their inability to communicate made it difficult to get on the same page and made completing projects more challenging. 

I do agree that if you find a group of engineers you are happy with, then don't underrate if you consider jumping to a new job.

01-18-2019 11:47 AM

Go where you can learn and follow through on your work.  
A small place to work is great if and only if the right tools are at your disposal.  Ask lots of questions, but only after doing a reasonable amount of research.
A large place should have plenty of work, so you have more opportunities.
Remember the number one attribute of Engineers is to get along with people, so you can eventually build a better world. Both choices can lead you there.
Lastly, before an Engineer jumps from one company to another, remember if you really got along with people at one company, I strongly recommend staying there.  The grass is not always greener on the other side of the fence.

01-17-2019 09:39 AM

​​This article is very spot on with the dynamics of both small and large companies. I would also like to add the following:
Small Company Pro - Availability of mentorship via a direct supervisor or manager is higher than in a large company where the one on one contact may be less.