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How to choose the right engineering firm as a graduate

Ryan Matthews

Not sure where to apply? Here are 6 questions to consider when choosing where to launch your graduate engineering career.

If you choose to work in an engineering firm, deciding where to apply can fast become a troublesome question. Even if you already have a strong sense of where you’d like to work, it pays to ensure that your decision is a carefully considered one. Your choice of firm can have a strong bearing on the overall shape of your career, especially given its potential to affect the contacts you make, the skills you acquire, the projects you work on, and the training you receive.

Of course, it’s not easy to navigate the world of engineering firms. So, to help you determine which firm will suit you, we’ve compiled six questions that every engineering graduate should ask when considering a prospective employer.

6 questions every engineering graduate should consider

1. How large is the firm?

Engineering firms range in size from specialised, boutique operations with fewer than 50 employees to massive international organisations, like Chevron, which employs some 61,000 people. Indeed, to begin with, it can be difficult to get a sense of just how many engineering firms there are. We advise you to check the directory of engineering employers on the GradAustralia website or consult the regularly updated (but not exhaustive) list here.

When it comes to size, there are pros and cons to working in firms at either end of the spectrum. Some may be drawn to the scale, stability, training, and career advancement opportunities promised by medium and large firms. For example, one of our insiders at Microsoft praised the company for offering ‘a huge investment in graduates that involved being flown to four countries for training within the two-year grad program.’

In general, at larger firms, you can meet more people, receive better benefits packages, and more easily avail yourself of opportunities to switch jobs without switching companies. On the other hand, larger companies tend to be more resistant to change and more bureaucratic. Furthermore, however social you are, it can be difficult to know everybody.

As such, you may prefer a smaller practice in which you can focus on topics of interest, develop close client relationships, and potentially enjoy a more close-knit workplace culture. For example, Entura is a Tasmanian consultant engineering firm that specialises in issues related to energy production and water management, making it a great fit for graduates to whom these areas are particularly interesting.

Smaller firms tend to be more flexible both in terms of how they operate within the market and in terms of the conditions they can offer employees. It’s often easier to communicate with decision-makers and business leaders, which can mean that your successes are more visible to the people most likely to reward you for them. However, it’s also true that smaller firms typically offer fewer training opportunities and less frequent exposure to large-scale projects.

2. What’s the culture of the firm like?

The importance of the culture at an engineering firm cannot be overstated. There are few other environments in which you’ll work as intensely or closely with other groups of people, so it pays to ensure that the culture at your firm is positive and encouraging. After all, as a 2016 study (‘Snapshot of the Australian Workplace’) made abundantly clear, work cultures that are supportive and appreciative correlate strongly with job satisfaction and productivity.

To properly evaluate the culture of an engineering firm, it’s helpful to ask questions such as:

  • How competitive is the firm?
  • What sort of people work at the firm? Is it a diverse and inclusive environment?
  • What is expected of graduate employees?
  • How are decisions made at the firm? Do managers trust employees to make them independently?
  • How happy are the employees you’ve met?
  • What is the turnover rate of the firm? If it’s high, what is the reason for this?
  • Is there any flexibility when it comes to remote working or job-sharing?
  • Do the people who have interviewed you speak about current employees with respect?
  • What is the physical space of the firm like? Is it designed in a way that promotes collaboration (ie with meetings rooms and social areas) or does it appear to emphasise independent work?

Engineering firms and even individual teams within engineering firms also vary widely in their value systems. Some may value individualism, conspicuous effort, or billable hours; others may value employee and client satisfaction, work-life balance, or community engagement. Where possible, try to secure a position in a firm whose values are consistent with your own.

3. Will working at this firm help you in your career?

On average, people change jobs a dozen times during their careers. So it pays to consider where you want to be not just for the next few years but in a decade or so. You’ll then be in a much better position to evaluate whether or not a particular firm will set you up to pursue your future career goals. This might mean checking that you’ll learn the right skills, focus on the right issues, gain the right experience, or network with the right people. Some firms have established professional development initiatives, especially those with structured graduate programs. This allows you to get a clear sense of whether or not you’ll emerge from your graduate training with the skills you’ll need to apply competitively for whatever comes next.

4. Does the firm have an international presence?

For engineering graduates excited by the prospect of working abroad, it could be worth prioritising firms that have a global presence. It can be much easier to find employment overseas if internal transfers are available, and international firms often leverage their global presence to bid for projects with stakeholders from multiple countries. In general, international opportunities are more numerous at larger firms, such as BHP Billiton, BP, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and Shell.

Of course, if you’d prefer to work in a single location, or focus on domestic projects, you may wish to avoid international firms in which overseas postings or training programs are considered a natural part of your career progression.

5. Will I have a healthy work-life balance?

You will have your own sense of what a healthy work-life balance looks like. Some people may derive satisfaction from occasionally working late to complete complex projects. Others may prefer more regular hours with ample time for personal commitments. In either case, it’s important to check that your idea of a healthy work-life balance is achievable at your target engineering firm.

After all, whether or not you feel like you have a sustainable work-life balance can have a huge impact on your overall job satisfaction. It’s also important to consider its role in mental health. While nine in ten Australians consider mentally healthy workplaces to be essential, one in five will take time off work each year due to feeling anxious or depressed. Tellingly, employees who work in mentally unhealthy workplaces are four times more likely to take time off work. Of these employees, 76 per cent attribute their leave to stressful or overwhelming professional demands.

6. Who are the clients?

If you work at a big engineering firm, you might find yourself managing relationships with clients at equally large organisations. If you work at a smaller firm, you may be more likely to work closely with individuals on local projects. Finally, if you work in-house, then your ‘client’ will effectively be the organisation that employs you. The possibilities really are endless so consider who you would find it gratifying to work for – will the firm you’re investigating be able to connect you with that type of client?

Additional things to consider

It pays to consider your academic background. If you’ve completed an undergraduate degree or alternative qualification in an area other than engineering this may make you more employable in specific areas. For example, if you studied medical sciences alongside chemical engineering, you may find it advantageous to pursue a career at a biomedical engineering firm.

You should also take into account your interests outside of engineering and explore the possibility of using them to create a more satisfying career. For example, if you’re a civil engineer who is passionate about sustainability, you may seek out a firm that has a history of working on environmentally conscious projects.

Other questions you might ask in evaluating a firm include:

  • Where is the firm located?
  • Will the firm meet your salary expectation?
  • Will you have any autonomy, and if so, how much?
  • Will you receive varied and interesting work?
  • Will you have an opportunity to rotate through different departments or offices?
  • Will you be required to work long hours?
  • How will your performance be evaluated? How regular will your reviews be?
  • Are there opportunities for professional development, including training, education (such as funding for further study), and mentoring?
  • What are the cultural precepts of the firm?
  • Who will you report to?

How to find answers to your questions

If you are interested in working for a particular firm, it’s helpful to speak with current employees about their individual experiences. One way to do this is by approaching representatives of your target firm at career fairs. Alternatively, recruitment agents and other contacts, such as friends who have worked at the firm, can provide honest and valuable information about its culture, reputation and working environment. You can also refer to the graduate job reviews and insider guides on the GradAustralia website.

Researching online can be a helpful way to find answers to your questions, although you should, of course, endeavour to base your opinions on reputable sources. You can also seek out the advice of lecturers, tutors, careers counsellors, and members of the engineering profession. Finally, there’s no better time to ask clarifying questions than during a job interview.

The importance of choosing wisely

By doing your research and identifying an engineering firm that fits your values, goals, and expectations, you can increase the chances that your experiences as a graduate will get your career off to a satisfying start. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of making this choice with care and patience. As Marsha Sinetar wrote:

‘When the powerful quality of conscious choice is present in our work, we can be enormously productive. When we consciously choose to do work we enjoy, not only can we get things done, we can get them done well and be intrinsically rewarded for our effort.’

To browse graduate programs by employer, visit our employers’ page at GradAustralia.