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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