There are many pros and cons for working for both large, international companies and small, independent companies. I’ve had the opportunity to work for both types of companies in my career and I wanted to share my perspective and some of my experiences with you in this post.

Large, international companies

I’ve worked for several large, international companies in my career in two different industries. There are many things I’ve liked about working for these large, well-known companies, and a few things I didn’t like as well. One of the greatest benefits for my career about working for a large company is the training and development opportunities. The large companies want to develop their employees and have budget and resources to send you to trainings, or have top-notch in-house training opportunities from internationally recognized experts. When I first switched career paths from semiconductor manufacturing to petroleum engineering, the large oil and gas company I worked for sent me away to a three-week training course to learn about petroleum engineering principles. I’ve since had the opportunity to take many other valuable training courses to aid my technical development.

In addition, there are many experienced engineers in a large company who can mentor you technically and professionally and supervise your work. As an early career engineer, it is vital to have a good mentor who you feel comfortable asking even the “stupid” questions so you can learn without fear of making huge mistakes. I always knew someone would check my work and answer my questions before my work was finalized and this helped boost my work productivity and confidence.

Large companies often have offices around the world. All the large companies I’ve worked for have been international companies. This means that many of my co-workers have not been Americans. I love working with people from all around the world. Not only do they bring a new technical perspective to the office, but it’s is interesting to learn about different cultures and way of life. I’ve also had the opportunity to work as an ex-pat in Australia. It is one of the greatest highlights of my career to have had the opportunity to work outside of the United States. Not only was it a great adventure, and unique experience to learn about a new country and culture, but there are many financial benefits to working as an ex-pat as well. You often have housing, travel, and schooling costs (at a minimum) all covered during your ex-pat assignment.

Large companies often have a larger variety of job roles and openings. This means you can try different roles, learn new skills, and have a broad understanding of the business. For example, I’ve been able to rotate through every major petroleum engineering discipline to gain an understanding of each role. I’ve spent longer periods of time as both a plant engineer and reservoir engineer and worked a variety of roles in each discipline. I wasn’t expected to specialize in one disciple and role immediately in my career and I’ve been able to continue to grow and expand my skill set.

A final pro about the large companies is their ability to better withstand market fluctuations. Large companies can often better absorb the impact of changing market prices and don’t have to immediately start cutting jobs or benefits. Yes, lay-offs still happen, and on a large scale, but it does not happen immediately and might not be as severe as with a smaller company.

But despite all the wonderful reasons to work for a large company, there are some cons that you have to deal with on a daily basis. One thing that I find difficult is the perceived bureaucracy. There are many levels of meetings, reviews, approvals, and sign-offs required to get any work done. I understand why these levels are in place. It is to ensure quality, consistency, standardization, and safety in the work, but it also slows things down and adds additional time, work and overhead to projects.

Speaking of meetings – there are so many meetings. Some days I get almost no technical work done because I am called in to listen or participate in meetings all day. I’ve been in meetings that are purely to discuss and prepare for another upcoming meeting. Meetings about meetings, I mean, wow! How am I supposed to get my “real” engineering work done?! I love doing technical work, but the meetings to present, justify, and gain approvals for the implementation of the technical work is one of my least favorite aspects of the job.

The large companies employ tens of thousands and even up to hundreds of thousands of employees. When there are this many employees working for a company you just become a name the crowd. Yes, your immediate work group knows and respects you, but you are unlikely to ever be known at the corporate level. People who like to fly under the radar anyway and just get their work done may like this fact.

Because the companies are so large there are many levels of management. You have a supervisor, and she has a manager, then there is a general manager, and above him is an asset manager, then there is country manager, who answers to a regional manager, who might finally answer to the CEO. Sometimes work has to go several tiers up the chain to get approvals, and that requires much preparation and meetings.

A final con is the required paper-trail. I personally like to keep a record of my work, so I save emails, take detailed notes, and document major projects by writing papers or creating presentations. And this is exactly what you are expected to do for all projects in a large company. You often are expected to write technical memos, papers, presentations, and more to document your work. If you don’t enjoy writing this documentation can seem tedious, but it is an important job requirement.

Small, independent companies

I’ve also had the opportunity to work with and for small, independent companies in my career. Working for a small company is a completely different atmosphere than a large company. Every worker is there for a reason and has an important role to play. There are not two people doing the same job, so your work is valued and has a great impact on the company. This is a great pro if you’re an experienced engineer who wants to create value and make an immediate impact with your work. But it can be a con for an early career engineer who’s still trying to build their technical foundation. There isn’t always a mentor or peer to ask questions and review your work. Your work may make it a general manager  or higher before a problem is found, and that mistake will reflect badly back on you and could be damaging the company.

In small companies there aren’t the levels of bureaucracy and management that are often seen in large companies. Because of that there is minimal lag time between project proposal and implementation. It is so satisfying to see the results of your hard work happen in a very short time frame. If you make a technically sound and economically robust proposal the project will pass through approvals quickly and work will commence as soon as possible.

Another great thing about the small workforce in a small company is the employees tend to have the opportunity to get to know each other better and you can become closer with more of your co-workers than in larger companies. In large companies there were always so many people, so many meetings and too much (often unnecessary) work to be done that there isn’t as much socializing. In the small office environment people tend to take the time to say hello and get to know their co-works on a personal and professional level.

A final pro of working for a small company is higher pay. Often small companies offer higher salaries because they are sharing the profit of the small company with the employees. They have fewer employees and those employees are highly specialized so they are well compensated for their dedication and expertise. But of the con side of this, small companies often are not able to offer the level of health-care benefits and volunteer opportunities that you would get with a large companies. The greater number of employees allows the larger companies to negotiate better benefits and arrange more opportunities for their employees.

As great as working for a small company sounds there are several reasons it isn’t always the best choice. For early career engineers, smaller companies have few resources and smaller budget to provide training and development opportunities. Most training would take place on-the-job and is specific to the where the company works/operates. There aren’t company experts to teach a technical course (you’re the expert!). I found the training I received early in my career extremely valuable and am glad I started with a large company that had the resources to train me.

The ability to change roles in smaller companies is not as common or frequent as in larger companies, where you often can change disciplines and/or roles every 2-4 years, from my experience.  Typically smaller companies hire employees for their expertise/skill set.

Small companies are much more susceptible to negative changes in market conditions. If and when the market turns negative, a small company feels the effects almost immediately. This means immediate budget cuts, lay-offs, and even potential for buy-outs by larger companies. All this can cause less job security and lower office morale.

Finally, small companies have fewer employees which means you are often taking on a larger work-load. You alone many be doing the work that would be done by up to four people in a larger company. This can mean working much longer hours in the office to get all the work done.

In summary, here are my list of pros and cons about working for a large vs. small company:

Large Company Pros:

  • development resources
  • technical and professional mentors
  • multicultural workforce/ international work opportunities
  • ability to work a variety of roles
  • better withstands market fluctuations

Large Company Cons:

  • lots of bureaucracy
  • meetings, meetings, and more meetings!
  • you’re just a name out of thousands and thousands of workers
  • many levels of management and supervision
  • paperwork

Small Company Pros:

  • high-impact work
  • every worker is known – even to high-level management
  • little lag time between project proposal and implementation
  • closer workforce
  • higher pay

Small Company Cons:

  • fewer benefits (health and well-being, volunteer opportunities, etc)
  • limited training and development opportunities
  • less opportunity to change roles
  • potential buy-out in a bad economy/less job security
  • larger work-loads (longer hours)

So now I want to hear from you! Do you work for a small or large company? Do you agree with my list of pros and cons? Which size company would you rather work for?

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