Go big or go home? Why small firms suit some people better

Written by: Keri Allan
Published on: 11 Oct 2016

Large corporations play a role in the career aspirations of many new engineering graduates but the opportunities a smaller firm can provide should not be overlooked.


There’s a lot to consider when searching for a job in the graduate market, not least finding the right cultural fit. It’s important not only to think about the role you want but also the kind of organisation you’d like to work for, as often what you can expect from a company is dictated by its size.

“It varies from company to company, but chances are there could be more scope for responsibility with a smaller firm and more opportunities with a multinational,” says Richard Hogg, managing director of Jackson Hogg Recruitment. “It’s worth noting that the ability for the right candidate to grow with a small business is a great opportunity in itself.”

So-called SMEs, or small and medium-sized enterprises, are generally defined  as those having fewer than 250 employees. SMEs and larger companies can provide equally valuable opportunities to young engineers; however, there can be quite dramatic differences in the types of work you’ll undertake within each type of business, even when the job title is the same. Plus your ideas of what to expect from either type of organisation could be completely wrong, as Dominic Hughes, team leader at recruitment firm BPS World, points out.

“Depending on the TV shows that graduates are currently watching, they may perceive working for a large organisation as a mirror image of ‘Suits’ whereas they may think of an SME as the garage in ‘EastEnders’. Neither tends to be the case.”

In the end what type of organisation is right depends on the personality, characteristics and personal preferences of the applicant, so the main challenge for graduate job hunters is finding out what environment is right for them – a large business with a structured, formal career pathway in place or a smaller, more tight-knit working environment that could offer more flexibility.

“Joining a bigger company allows me to move sideways and the graduate scheme allowed me to experience a number of different roles.”

Michael Corkhill, MBDA

Working for a larger business often means a more structured training programme for new recruits. These formal programmes frequently provide the opportunity to rotate through different areas of the business and also lead to additional qualifications, which may appeal to many graduates.

“Most large companies do have programmes to support young graduates by giving them the opportunity to work in different departments. In this way the company helps them to find the best place in their ‘new family’,” explains Daniela Ledwoch, an industrial fellow of the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851, working at Sharp Laboratories in Oxford.

Large companies also have the benefit of greater resources and a larger network to draw on, as Suzy Style, BP’s head of UK graduate recruitment, highlights.

“The opportunity to get involved in projects outside of your day-to-day role and enhance your technical expertise is the main differentiator between working for a company like BP and an SME. There’s so much knowledge within a large organisation and the support network provided is invaluable.”

But Michael Corkhill, a graduate design engineer at MBDA, emphasises that it’s down to the individual to take advantage of everything on offer. “Progression and development is a big plus in a large company. However, this will only be true if you push it,” he notes. “The training and development opportunities were one of the big reasons [I chose MBDA] – I figured there would be a bigger push for off-the-job development opportunities in a larger company. When I first joined I wasn’t 100 per cent sure of what I wanted to end up doing. Joining a bigger company allows me to move sideways and the graduate scheme allowed me to experience a number of different roles. This has helped clarify in my mind the type of work I want to end up doing.”

This environment can offer many opportunities for engineers to transfer to different departments or locations, and employee benefits can be very attractive, but for some it can feel too impersonal and inflexible. Sophia Godfrey, a senior industrial designer at Cambridge Consultants, believed that at a multinational it would be harder for her to be seen as an individual and chose a position at an SME in order to move away from the structured career paths she feels are difficult to personalise.

“With SMEs it’s a little more challenging to know what sort of paths are available as they are often more bespoke, where individuals carve out their path to suit their own strengths. While being more challenging this often seems to benefit both the individual and the company far more,” she notes.

Emily Pettitt joined Cambridge Consultants as a senior design engineer after working for a multinational company for four years after graduation.

“I feel like I have control of my career and can direct it towards opportunities that excite me,” she says. “I worked for a multinational company before where I felt like a figure in a spreadsheet of targets, left floating on one level, not really moving forwards unless I knew the right person to rub shoulders with. Here there is a transparency across all levels of management which creates a feeling of inclusiveness.”

Many graduates approach SMEs as they like the idea of getting exposure to the wider scope of a business rather than working on just one facet of a larger project. Often at a smaller company there’s also the chance to take on more responsibility earlier and feel like your work is making a bigger difference to the business.

“Generally there’s more responsibility and capabilities to influence and effect change in an SME compared to a large corporation that suffers from many layers of supervisors, management and multiple layers of sign-off,” notes Tony Hague, chairman of the Manufacturing Assembly Network (MAN) a collective of SMEs.

“With SMEs it’s a little more challenging to know what sort of paths are available as they are often more bespoke, where individuals carve out their path to suit their own strengths.”

Sophia Godfrey, Cambridge Consultants

Steve Greenland, who like Ledwoch is an 1851 industrial fellow, agrees. “When I joined start-up Clyde Space as employee number six, most activities we were doing for the first time, requiring a great deal of autonomy and initiative. As lead for our first satellite, UKube-1, my role touched on all aspects of a large space programme and the stakeholders: technical, government, legal, logistical, programmatic.”

For Stuart Berry, a lead engineer at Brandauer, he liked the idea that his contribution would mean a lot to the overall success of the business at an SME. 

“You can clearly see what you are contributing to the business and that is a very satisfying feeling,” he explains.

Clearly there’s no right or wrong choice between SME and corporate employers. Your personality highlights whether you’re more likely to thrive in an SME or more corporate environment and this is something recruiters are trained to spot.

The most successful engineers aren’t those who wait to be shown which path to take; they’re the ones who take the time to consider the options and work out what type of company would suit them best. The important thing is not to rule out either type of business until you’ve looked into what both offer, as although there are differences, both career pathways will help you grow as a professional engineer.

The differences between the two types of organisation can be seen as early as the application process. Graduates will often find that larger businesses will have more structured application processes that can entail online applications and testing, psychometric testing, assessment days, one-to-one and panel interviews.

Often smaller organisations will have a more informal process, with fewer stages to go through.

“Due to the size of these [large] companies and the number of new graduates they can accommodate at every intake period, this provides them with ample reason to assign specific resource to focus on the recruitment and selection function – i.e. internal recruitment teams,” says Dominic Hughes of BPS World.

“With an SME the intake levels of new graduates will be lower and many graduates may find themselves simply submitting a CV and attending an interview to achieve an outcome,” he notes.

Harry Cronin

Having worked for a large engineering firm for two years after graduation before moving to an SME, 1851 industrial fellow Harry has seen both sides of the ‘SME versus corporation’ discussion.

“Both my roles have involved hands-on engineering and lab work on a daily basis. One difference is in the amount of process involved in getting things done.

“Working in an SME is very varied, and it is common for everyone to take a part in most tasks. My main role is in R&D of new materials for printed electronics. However, alongside my regular job in the lab, I might be found helping with the company website, bidding for project funding or installing new pieces of equipment. The variety is a huge plus. I think this is one advantage that SMEs have over large companies.”

Sophia Godfrey

Sophia works as a senior industrial designer in an SME environment.

“My role entails a huge variety of different responsibilities, from facilitating workshops and project management through to mentoring junior employees and the technical delivery of projects. And all this can sometimes happen in just one day!

“It’s really challenging and pulls on all sorts of skills from the softer, more people-focused to the harder, technical skills. This keeps me on my toes every day.”

Michael Corkhill

Michael carried out two three-month internships at an SME during university before joining MBDA after graduation, where he now works as a graduate design engineer.

“I look at detailed safety requirements for a particular subsystem of one our products and am responsible for delivering these to the design team and ensuring that the safety case for the product is supported.

“I think my role is more specialised than it would be in an SME. However, I also do a number of development activities beyond my main project role, affording me lots of opportunities that I wouldn’t get in the day job. In my opinion, this is one of the big benefits of a large company.”

Thomas Napper

“I chose BAE Systems because of the range of opportunities available within the same company. When I joined, I felt it would be similar to previous jobs during university where the first couple of months were preoccupied with training. However, due to the range of projects in the research department, I was involved in meaningful work from the onset.

“After six months of working for BAE Systems’ Naval Ships business, I was fortunate enough to gain a specialist role on the UK Sport Technology Partnership, which aims to integrate defence technologies into a sporting environment. I was involved with project management of several different concepts aimed at making a real difference to the training of Olympic and Paralympic athletes in the run-up to Rio 2016.”