First Job Hunt: Does Size Matter?

  • 14 Aug 2014
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Courtesy of Wikipedia User Mdd

Architecture students are constantly beset by questions concerning where they want to work, and for what type of firm – and these two questions often boil down to a decision concerning the size of the firm they want to work for. This article, originally posted on Arch Shortcuts thankfully makes this difficult choice a little easier. In it, blog Co-Founder Udit Goel reviews the pros and cons of big firms and small firms, including compensation, expected working hours, and responsibilities. Read the full article, after the break.

One of the biggest decisions we face coming out of architecture school is what kind of job to apply for. Most of us aren’t fortunate enough to be able to choose from multiple offers in this economy, but we normally have an idea of the type of company we would like to work for, mostly in terms of its size. However, is there actually a pay-off for working for bigger architectural companies, or vice-versa?  I have found that there are many misconceptions on the topic through my experiences in Asia, which I believe can also be valid to firms worldwide – particularly in the business capitals of the globe, where such companies coexist.

1. Scope of Responsibility

Courtesy of Flickr User Eric Bridiers

Many architectural students and graduates believe that larger firms tend to assign less responsibility to the juniors because of the vast senior resources. However, most large firms are actually composed of numerous smaller teams, allowing for more opportunistic distribution of the work than perceived. I’ve found that the scope of responsibility however, varies drastically between juniors. What differentiates them is the ability that architectural graduates demonstrate, how dependable they prove to be to the management, and most importantly, the initiative and interest the graduate shows in taking responsibility.

On the flip side, many graduates find smaller firms more attractive because they believe that they will be given more tasks of significant value due to fewer resources to delegate work amongst. However, I’ve seen some juniors in such firms often doing menial tasks, no different to what they believed to have avoided in larger firms. Hence, I believe that the previous rule applies here. If you want more responsibility as a junior architect, then show that you are capable and willing to take it on. Otherwise, the seniors will simply delegate it to someone else in the team. Ultimately, no matter what firm you work for, the more reliable you prove to be, the more responsibility will be put on your side of the table.

2. Work Hours and Pace

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Julio Gonzalez, SLU

Larger companies generally tend to take on a greater number of large projects worldwide. This results in employees often pulling overtime to achieve their daily hit list in the fast pace of these multinational firms, a fact that puts many graduates off. The unsung advantage to this though is that a massive amount can be learnt in a short time. Yes, you often work double the work hours than required by your contract to complete tasks, but this also means double the amount of experience and learning in the same timeframe, given an optimistic attitude.

In smaller firms, graduates usually work on just a couple of projects in comparison. From my experience in Asia, there is a more achievable to-do list in such companies, and the employees rarely have to stay overtime to complete their tasks, which is a major plus for most people. The slow pace also allows for more time to learn at the individual’s pace, so they aren’t overcome with new responsibilities and tasks as easily and understand assignments thoroughly due to a less stressful environment. However, saying this, remember that the amount of overtime undertaken is dependent on the individual’s ability and efficiency.

3. Project Size, Scope and Variety

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Since larger firms tend to bring in a greater number of projects, working for one can often lead to a broader scope of work experience as it provides the opportunity to work on various types of projects. These tend to be, from my experience and understanding, extremely design focused. This variety allows graduates to discover and hone their individual interests, which can be pursued at a later stage during further studies or experience.

In contrast, smaller architecture companies generally tend to handle a fewer number of projects, but often see their development through to later stages of the design process, possibly even to construction. The advantage is that this experience on detailed/construction drawings and on site is very valuable, and can result in a more coherent, deeper experience. However, these projects can often be smaller in scale and limited in number, potentially meaning a narrower architectural experience.

I feel that this factor really depends on what the individual would like to achieve and experience at this point in his/her career. Personally, I would advise to experience a wider range of projects so that interests can be identified for later, when a deeper understanding of this can be pursued, but that’s just my opinion.

4. Compensation

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From what I’ve generally found through working in Hong Kong and discussing with architectural professionals, multinational companies’ compensation tends to be higher than boutique firms. Excluding exceptions, the salaries they offer, along with medical benefits, etc., tend to be more attractive. This might be relevant worldwide, but remember that with this higher pay comes an expectation of longer hours and more commitment in comparison to their smaller counterparts. But don’t expect to be paid overtime, especially in Asia! This is rarely a clause in contracts here, since overtime is expected of employees in general.

5. Networking

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons User Townsville Chamber

One of the biggest advantages of working in a multinational company, in my opinion, is the networking opportunity. One tends to constantly be surrounded with numerous successful architectural professionals. These contacts can prove invaluable in the future for job prospects, for example, but only if they see you as a worthy investment. As a result, I encourage you to try to stand out with your work and interpersonal abilities. Keep in mind though, that at a large firm, one might have to work harder to be noticed within the large pool of people, but the advantage of doing so is tremendous in terms of networking and personal development.

In boutiques however, the networking possibilities are a bit more limited as teams are smaller and there are fewer people in the office. However, this means that you are more likely to be recognized for your contributions in the team, and can possibly build deeper connections with your coworkers. Additionally, the fewer work hours (as discussed earlier) opens up time to go to networking events instead, providing the opportunity to build your network outside the company if you really want to.

Whilst both have their advantages in terms of networking, I feel that the larger firms tend to hold more potential to be able to build your architectural circle. In my experience, if one can be fortunate enough to be noticed in such companies, it can open doors elsewhere and perhaps even secure in the future; it’s all about meeting the right people and making connections.

Udit Goel is the co-founder of Arch Shortcuts, a website aimed at providing advice and insight into the architecture industry for young architects, with a focus on China.

Cite: Udit Goel. "First Job Hunt: Does Size Matter?" 14 Aug 2014. ArchDaily. Accessed 21 Dec 2014. <http://www.archdaily.com/?p=537281>
  • CW

    I would like to add the perspective of a recent grad from an undergraduate program, going on their second year off from school and working for a small size firm (9 people).

    I went through the whole process of job searching once I graduated from school, I was also concerned about the size of the firm I would potentially be working for.

    Most of my interviews were with small-medium sized firms. The issue with large, corporate or multinational firms is that 1) highly competitive 2) even if it’s an Entry-Level position, sometimes they still ask for 1-2 yrs of experience 3) you need to have an inside connection or someone who’s vouching for you to really get noticed. Whereas smaller firms are more likely to take the risk and be more willing to guide you through all processes, even if you have 0 experience.

    At the firm I’m currently working for we have a wide scope of projects. We work on high end office suites, lobbies, exterior facade renovations, residential projects from single family to multifamily. So to say that smaller firms don’t have a wide variety of projects is untrue. Yes, the scope of work will obviously be smaller than a large firm but there can be variety.

    One of the most beneficial aspects of working in a small firms is IDP hours. In any given project I am participating from Pre-Design all the way to Construction Administration. Which is invaluable because when I have to fill out my IDP hours I’m not just filling out 3 or 4 different sections, I’m getting all of them. I have friends who work for medium-large firms and there are areas where I’m getting experience where they aren’t getting that at all.

    Another plus for small firms is the relationships you build with your co-workers. My boss is extremely hands on, and really explains any issues I am having and helps me through things I don’t know/understand/have experience in. I’m learning a lot, and quickly because I have to.

    Obviously there are cons to small firms, such as benefits and salary. But I figure that I’m young and still have a lot of time to work at those big name firms. What is important to me is getting a wide range of EXPERIENCE; experience is key and not in just one aspect but in ALL of them. So don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Apply everywhere, ask the important questions when you have interview and really pay attention to the atmosphere of the firm (such as is it a positive working environment, will I learn, will I feel comfortable asking questions) because it really does just depend on the firm and who you are talking to matter how big or small.

  • Dawood Akhtar

    Informative

  • Bill

    I also have different experiences from the article – I work for a large multinational firm. I am a recently graduated Part 1, I have been working for the firm now for 3 months and have remained on the same project for all of those 3 months and apparently I will remain on the same project for at least another 3 months. So I’m certainly not experiencing any variety. Saying that though, the company is great to work for and the benefits are fantastic so its not all bad.

    • roger

      Bill, 3 months is barely past the usual ‘trial period’ of firms, I wouldn’t expect to work on numerous projects in that time

  • Bryan

    I actually found that the pay is higher at the small firms but benefits (health insurance, retirement, 401k match)is often non-existent. The best part of a small firm is indeed the ability to complete all the IDP hours! You work on everything, however the trade-off for me has been the lack of connections available (as mentioned)

  • aaron

    another thing with smaller firms, they are more inclined in hiring fresh graduates with work experience already, which is understandable.

  • LATOKYO

    I think we are confusing the size of a firm with the size of the projects. You can work for a ” big” firm yet work on a very small scale project and get to see the project from SD to CA. You can also work for a “small” firm and wok a large international project where you only work on SD – DD and pass on the CD-CA to the architects of record. Obviously the latter condition is more in-tune with large international firms. The point is that you should not really aim for a firm type BUT project type instead. Do you want to work for a firm that usually designs high-rise buildings and corporate interiors, or do you want to work for a firm that designs single family residential units, local educational facilities, and small scale boutique shops, etc.?

  • LATOKYO

    P.S.

    Whats up with all the dated photos? No one drafts anymore. That computer is from 1995. The pub scene looks like a bunch of 9-5 humans. And architects will never see those many Benjamins in 2 architectural lives combined.

  • Vladimir

    One should not be a carrierist. I think that it is very good if one can see all phases of designing – from the first sketch to construction supervision. Including doing bills of quantities and specifications. When I was at architecture school I never realised how important they are and that the best person to do them is the one who drew the project from conceptual phase to work drawings.

  • carlos

    I also disagree with some points of this article. after working in multiple large high profile firms and well know small boutique firms I believe that you will get better exposure to the complete architectural design, submital and building process in a smaller firm and will become a more complete architect earlier. Chance are the the teams created in a large firm will work on the same project for month, even years at a time. And though you may be asked to participate in other task due to your abilities your will have to go through the ranks and deal will the competition. at time never even having communicated will the leading architect as they will delegate to the project architects, project managers, lead designer ect. Also, in a smaller firm you will be able to create an extensive portfolio of actual built work much faster than a large firm. In addition, the Asia architectural job market is quite different than the american market. my experience tells me that overtime will be required more in a small firm than a large firm.

  • Sarah

    I see most of the people posting in response to this article are American – From a British perspective I don’t actually think the wages are too bad considering you really don’t know anything when you first graduate, I’m currently earning just under $30,000 – I would be interested to hear what the salary is for a freshly graduated architect in the US?

  • cy

    I am a 15-year vet who has worked in both USA and Hong Kong (mid, large and super large firms). For what its worth here are my two cents: I agree that the dominant project types of the firms will be a very important criteria. But bear in mind that very few firms get to work on fancy museums (which seem to be the favorite project type for lots of young grads) so be realistic. Check out what their bread-and-butter works are. Be willing to compromise, you will still learn a ton regardless of the project types you work on. Another thing I suggest paying attention to is whether the interviewer seems friendly to you and whether he/she is willing to give you a tour of the office, and how in general you feel the atmosphere of the firm is. Trust your gut feeling. While it is obvious that everyone has different personality, but trust me, your interviewers, being the leader of the firm (maybe not the top, but certainly leading someone or he/she won’t be interviewing you) how he/she presents herself tells you a lot what the chemistry of the working team will be. If you find him/her cold and indifferent, chances are that the firm’s population takes on that cold and indifferent attitude. In USA, generally the interviewers will offer a tour of the office w/o asking while in Hong Kong, firms are more “conservative” and may be unwilling to offer a tour even when asked. While that is not a definite indicator, I never choose to work for a firm that don’t offer a tour. Office chemistry is VERY VERY important.