Is it better to work for a large engineering firm or a small one? This is a frequently asked question, so today I’m going to address it.
I’ve worked with both types of firms and can shed a little light from what I’ve learned and from what others have experienced.
Usually, the scenario goes something like this. You're about to graduate from college with an engineering degree. You work as an intern and hope to get hired on with your employer, or you're on the job hunt to see what’s out there.
Once you land a job, you start to think if where you are is a good fit for your goals. This dilemma is HUGE. If you aren’t sure what your career goals are, then STOP right now and evaluate your goals before you make the next move.
As part of your goals you need to really evaluate the pros and cons of your choices and how they relate to your engineering goals. I highly recommend checking out this great video by our friend at Engineering Worth about making decisions with a decision making matrix, so you can be prepared for this decision in your life! Just tailor it to the firms you are considering. I've also included a free copy of the matrix below!
If would like a free copy of the decision making matrix that you can tailor to your own needed then click below and grab it!
Is your goal to make as much money as you can right out of the gate? Is it to gain a ton of experience? Is it to find a place with great mentors? You need to figure out what best suits your needs and goals. As part of that you’ll bump up against the question we started with: should you work for a large or small firm?
Let’s dive into the pro’s and con’s of each one, and then you can choose for yourself what would be a better fit.
You get to experience a lot of things and wear a lot of different hats. A smaller firm has fewer employees than a larger one, so you’ll be asked to do more work there and take on more responsibilities.
You could be drafting, doing field measurements, doing QA/QC, managing projects, doing HR interviews, presentations, meeting with clients, and a lot more. Get used to being asked to do whatever they need to be done.
These various jobs give an engineer valuable experience - something that's very desirable for a new civil engineer discovering what they want to do in the future.
By working for a small contract firm, you’ll get to interact with a lot of different companies and get to know a lot of different ways of doing things (e.g. many companies have various standards you have to follow). Because you get exposed to so many different clients, you become a well-rounded engineer that gains more experience.
You also gain the bonus of networking with others, and working with others could turn into potential partners or job leads later in your career.
One of the neat things about working with a small firm is that you have the potential to make more money. When things are good, and work is coming in, then you typically will get a piece of that pie when bonuses are paid out. You’ll have to work hard for that, but it’s there.
You could also become more of an owner/partner as you work your way into the company’s senior management team. Stocks are also often issued out to employees of smaller businesses, and that could turn into something nice down the road as well.
Not a lot of resources:
Yes, it’s called a small firm for a reason--there are fewer resources. Fewer resources means you have to account for every paper you print or every 15 minutes you aren’t billing your time to a project. Also, there are less people to go to for advice or expertise. Smaller firms have to look to other companies if they can’t answer the question in-house. If there is an issue related to a field you don't cover, then you can't simply ask a co-worker about it.
Often, the benefits package is not as good as a larger firm. Things might be comparable but look a little deeper.
How much do they match in their 401(K) contributions? Do they offer tuition reimbursement if you want to get your masters or more? Do they offer a discretionary fund at the end of the year based on how well the company did?
Is healthcare decent or are you going to break the bank to pay for coverage?
All of the benefits need to be observed and evaluated. Usually, the smaller firms don’t quite have everything a large company has, but check it out first; it might be comparable.
When projects are abundant, things are good. When nothing is coming in….let’s just say you better start polishing up the resume. This scenario isn’t the case everywhere, but typically if the economy tanks then the firm has to cut costs, and often, that’s the low engineer on the totem pole.
I hate to be the bearer of the bad news but that’s just the natural law of a business making ends meet. If you end up making it out of the newbie ranks and make it to mid or senior level engineer, then you’ll usually be fine. At that point, you’ve become an asset they can’t afford to lose.
So, as we just mentioned, a larger firm is going to have more resources. They’ll have a bazillion printers, a dedicated IT team, manager, directors, VP’s, legal counsel, the whole 9 yards. They’ll have more personnel and may even have company cars.
You might have more opportunities for a good mentor because there are more people to interact with. If you don’t know something, you ask various departments to help them. There’s simply more knowledge at a big firm, more projects, and more resources.
Large companies typically have better benefits. Sometimes, they can offer tuition reimbursement and match your 401(K) contributions heavily. They often have support lines you can call for extra help and excellent fringe benefits that should be observed when looking at a total benefits package.
High Profile Projects:
Yes, with a big company you get big projects. Major projects are desirable for many reasons. How many engineers can honestly say they helped to design a 40-story building? Or worked on a 500kV transmission line? Or designed the largest half-donut shaped building in the world? Ok, I just made that up, BUT there are design plans for the longest building in the world to be built in New York! Check it out HERE.
You get the idea--large firms offer more opportunities, which can offer a big boost to your personal achievement and resume.
We mentioned that with a small business, the chance of getting booted if the economy takes a nosedive is far greater than it is with a larger firm. A larger firm can usually ride out the waves. If it is a terrible economy, they'll keep their in-house employees, and possibly get rid of any contractors on the books. This is on a case-by-case basis, of course, but that’s the pattern I have seen with larger firms.
Pigeon Holed For Life:
If you’ve ever feared the possibility of doing the same task over and over and over again, then this might be a reality with a big company. Usually, you’ll get hired on to do a particular task, and that’s what you do for a long, long time.
Being pigeon holed might not be a terrible thing if you want to be an expert in that area, but if you don’t, it is hard to get out sometimes. If you love what you do, then it’s not a big deal, but if it's something you don't like, you might be looking for a job in a year.
Yes, I know this is everywhere, but this problem is usually larger in a big firm. Others are always jarring for certain positions, and sometimes those go to friends of friends and not necessarily to the “best” candidate, which could be you.
Here's an example: some programs and policies may only issued to a particular group (e.g. they can work four 10 hour days with every other Friday off), and when you find out about it and voice your opinion, everything might blows up because of it, i.e., mangement now takes the perk away for everyone.
Stuff like that happens in big firms. It could be salary differences, working hours, company cars, travel expenses, training, etc.
Major changes could fit right there with office politics, but I decided to make it its very own thought.
Major shifts happen all the time with big companies, and when I say major shifts I mean entire departments move, restructure, change, realign, whatever you want to call it.
For example, if upper management intends to make a change, it can affect who your manager or director is, and the effects trickle down.
You could enjoy the window seat only to be strategically relocated into the dungeon. You might love the place you work only to find out that you'll be laid off unless you move across the country to another office.
You could be bought out as a company, and the entire management team gets overhauled. This change typically results in new policies and procedures on lots of things.
It could also mean reducing personnel within your department, which means it’s time to polish up the resume again.These things happen in large enterprises, and it could be a CON if significant changes like this are an area of concern for you.
I'm not saying major changes should stop you from working at a large firm--just know that they happen and roll with the punches.
Working for large and small firms each has their advantages. It’s really up to you to go where the workplace meets with your current and future goals as an engineer.
Have you had experience working with either one?
What do you think are the pros or cons?
Do you have any concerns or experiences?
I’d love to hear about it. If I get enough experiences, I’d like to post them on here and share them with others!