3 Reasons to Start Your Structural Engineering Career at a Small Firm

It can all seem so fancy – glass doors, posh offices, and amenities everywhere. Life working for a large engineering design firm. Many of us, upon graduating from college, picture ourselves in this environment at the start of our careers. We see it all the time on tv and movies when recent graduates begin their career. Shows like Suits made me want to thrive in the corporate world. But ask yourself, is it best for your career as a young engineer? Does it align with your long term personal and financial goals?

  1. Diversity of Experience
    You may think a smaller firm, won’t have a diverse portfolio, however there are exceptions to every rule. Let’s talk about structural engineering. Smaller firms tend to work on a myriad of projects. They have the flexibility to profit from both commercial and industrial. Smaller firms are “leaner” when it comes to overhead expenses. Larger firms need to cover that posh office space, so they have higher overhead and, sometimes, much higher billing rates. This allows smaller firms to be more competitive on projects. It allows recent engineering program graduates to gain a large range of experience.

    When working at a larger firm, a team can be working on the same project for 6 months to 1 year, but this doesn’t allow management to benefit from your specialization. Their goal is to make you experienced at a small facet of the overall process in the shortest amount of time so that you can be profitable at the higher billing rate. At smaller firms, it tends to be the opposite. A fast-paced environment with a wide array of projects is not un-common. This is primarily because small firms pick up whatever they are competitive for in the market. As a result, one year spent at a small firm, the engineer may have worked on anywhere from 30-50 projects. While the engineer at a large firm may have only been a part of 1-2 projects during that same period. Therefore, it is much more likely to gain a “diversity” in experience at the smaller firm than at a larger firm.

    Lastly, the range of experience gained from working with different material types is larger and more extensive at smaller firms. Due to the nature of large projects, they tend to be primarily steel and concrete projects. These materials have the durability and effectiveness to serve large industrial/commercial applications in a manner that wood and cold-formed framing do not. At smaller firms, most engineers wear many hats and have experience working with all materials. It’s not uncommon to find engineers who have extensive experience working with wood, cold-formed, steel, concrete, post tensioned, pre-stressed, masonry, composite framing, etc. in a 10–15-year career span. Engineers who have this variety of experience typically reside in smaller firms and have high ranking positions. Learning from them and shadowing them as a young engineer has astronomical benefits to the future of your career.
  2. Access to Upper Management
    Due to the largely flat hierarchy of most small engineering firms, the CEO/President/VP may be right down the hall from you. This may seem intimidating at first, but you can benefit in this environment. You can gain one on one time with leaders that will help you grow. The phrase “just a number” comes to mind when discussing the differences between small and large firms. The extensive hierarchy found at most large firms typically prevents young engineers from interfacing with upper management.
  3. Pace of Advancement
    This goes together with the previous point. Access to upper management and having them watch and mentor you more closely than at larger firms will likely lead to quicker advancement. Most larger firms have time periods on each promotion. Depending on the firm’s policies, these time periods may or may not be accelerated for high-performing employees.

    At smaller firms, it’s not uncommon to find yourself performing the duties of a senior engineer or project manager long before it would be fathomable at larger firms. The likelihood of developing a relationship with upper management and having them watch your success closely plays a large part.

I spent a year working for one of the largest and most successful consulting engineering firms in the world. It was a dream come true. The corporate environment was exactly what I was seeking coming out of college. Big city life, stunning office, bumper to bumper traffic during my commute, and glass doors. The whole nine yards. However, as time went on, and after the “cool” effect wore off, I realized it wasn’t the best career path for me.

Working at large firms has its perks and benefits. It may even lead to a better lifestyle. However, when focusing on one’s career as a young engineer, there are many great reasons to choose a small firm over a large one. The opportunities for learning, access to upper management and achieving the title one is seeking are just a few benefits that can be gained by starting your career at a small firm.