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Big, Medium Or Small Companies?

Big, Medium Or Small Companies?

Interesting fact: I’ve worked for small, medium and large engineering companies. This is something I realised while I was watching my tonsils return to their normal size over the course of a few drug filled days (sorry for the radio silence last week!). The question of what size company is the best for civil engineers to work for is something that I see get asked a lot; and it turns out, I can answer the question.

So here is a tour-de-force of engineering life in different company sizes, drawing from my, and others’, experience; with some posturing about the advantages and disadvantages of working for them, and what sort of engineer they best suit. As with all good business articles, however, you’ll ultimately have to decide for yourself!

Life in a Small Engineering Company

If you want to know absolutely everything about a specific area of engineering, then a small company is the best place to be.

I’ve actually worked for two small companies- if you include some pre-university work experience. A small company is defined as one where you can wonder around and personally invite everyone to the pub. While that’s probably not the official HMRC definition; it works. And that pretty much sums up the ‘feel’ of a small company; not too much structure- which can be bit of a mixed blessing.

Small companies typically survive by being niche businesses. If you want to know absolutely everything about a specific area of engineering, then a small company is the best place to be. This is fantastic if you want to be a specialist, as you’ll get some amazing exposure and are likely to find yourself meeting, if not working with, leaders in that field. To me, it’s the difference between reading the NCE and The Structural Engineer.

Depending on your outlook, however, smaller companies are likely to be limiting for a graduate’s development; as the view of the institutions is that a ‘good’ engineer is someone who can do half of a lot of things– rather than someone who can do one thing really well. To a certain type of person, small companies also tend to be a bit low on prospects; you’re in it because you’re already doing what you’ve always wanted to do. But then- not everyone wants to become a project manager; and why not spend your life doing what you like?

Working As A Part of A Big Company

Engineering is an industry of niches- and big companies give you a real chance to try them all.

A big company is defined as an entity that tells you what its core values are during the induction. Interestingly I don’t think I’ve ever seen a big company that has called itself a big company. Every large company is a global enterprise of important individuals that prides itself on maintaining its genuine ‘small company’ feel. I suspect this is because big corporations have a bad rap- I mean, it’s never an Small/Medium Enterprise trying to destroy the Muppet Theatre is it…

Big engineering companies pretty much have to be multidisciplinary giants, capable of delivering everything from giant structures to penguin enclosures. This means that you can be exposed to some weird and wonderful disciplines. Until recently I had no idea that anyone cared enough about building acoustics to do a whole degree in it- let alone justify a whole department dedicated to it. I think this really is useful to graduates; and it’s something I regret missing out on; engineering is an industry of niches- and big companies give you a real chance to try them all.

It might sound a bit obvious, but big companies deal with much larger cash-flows than smaller ones. Aside from socials with free bars and larger training budgets- an unexpected upshot is that they can also afford more esoteric pastimes; this means that if you want to try something new- or have an innovative idea- it’s large companies that will have the research grants and time allowance to let you to pursue it. From what I’ve seen however, this is a double edged sword- and larger companies are often the first to start cutting staff when times get tough.

From my experience (and maybe I just haven’t found the right role), it’s a bit of a misnomer that working for a large international company means fantastic travel prospects; most large companies get so through acquisition, and thus the international offices aren’t exactly begging for staff. They also don’t hold the monopoly on mega-structures. That said- for someone who knows exactly where they want to go, or what type of projects they want to work on- larger companies will already have the frameworks in place to take you there.

Medium Engineering Enterprises

For graduates, I think that medium sized companies offers the fastest route to responsibility.

I started out in a medium company; and I loved it. A medium company is defined as one where the owners still do some engineering, but don’t come to the pub with the graduates. There is a bit of a distinction, however, between ‘big little companies’ and ‘little big companies‘; typically around about the 150 employee mark. The former offering the best experience for younger engineers, and the latter for younger business’eers [ed. totally a word.].

Medium companies are typically single discipline, and do not afford specialists. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing- in fact, it’s fantastic for those who want are broader view of specific ‘sectors’ (read: bridges, rail, geoetechnics, etc.) but can be a bit limiting to those who are unsure, or who want to explore the all the niches in this wonderful world of engineering.

For graduates, I think that medium sized companies offers the fastest route to responsibility. Like the rest of the industry, everyone will be overworked- and the size of the company means that the majority of projects will be small and intricate- ideal for off-loading to younger engineers. This means that the chance to deliver your own project within your first year is a real possibility- ideal for those racing towards chartership.

Medium companies do have a bit of an awkward pubescent phase however; when they pass the magical 150 mark (science fact). This is where I think medium companies can suffer- as they become big enough to have big company problems, but are too small to have the cash-flow to cope with them. Normally this exhibits itself in increased work-pressures and a decline in the social aspects- something that shouldn’t be underestimated. Many will sell-up at this point, and you’ll end up working for a big company in any case.

For engineers looking to hone their business skills however, the transition from big-little to little-big yields one of the more unique opportunities a medium sized business offers: You could legitimately end up with a controlling interest. Smaller companies neither afford or require more than a couple of people at the top- and large companies are mostly share-holder led. Medium firms, however, tend to be partner owned- and with growth will come a chance to become an owner too.

To use the cliché- size isn’t everything; and even similar sized companies working in the same fields will have widely varying ethoses and approaches. Looking back at my time so far; I think the most crucial difference between them all is the level of exposure; and having a good think about whether you want to be a technical specialist, a mega-project deliverer, or something in-between is definitely worth while.

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  1. As a management consultant who has worked with 4 or 5 medium to large consulting engineering firms I can confirm Tom’s analysis.