It’s your big chance to secure that first co-op job. You are a wide-eyed student brimming with enthusiasm. Almost instinctively, you are drawn to big names like KPMG, Google and Bell. But before you send in that application, take a moment to reflect on your job search. What about the hundreds of other postings you saw? You likely skipped over half of them just because you didn’t recognize the name. What about Quicktech, Frogbox or Mojio? Who are these firms and what do they do?
From my experience, one would be wise not to discredit these small (but frequent) blips on the radar as you scour the co-op job postings. Yes, that big-fish-type job is out there, but is it the best place to start out as a student seeking your first co-op? For some, it might be. But for most inexperienced students, a smaller office may be the perfect fit.
Personally, I have spent the past eight months working for a small forensic accounting firm called Matson, Driscoll & Damico (“MDD”). The firm specializes in quantifying economic damages and works as an independent expert for insurance companies and law firms. I worked in the MDD Vancouver office, where there were only six employees. Every day we worked with the same people, and in a way my co-workers became a second family of sorts. I learned a great deal from these people and had an excellent experience as part of their team. As a result, I realized that perhaps a small office can offer several opportunities to an inexperienced student that a large firm simply cannot. Below I have outlined my top five reasons why you should consider a small company on your first job search:
1. A Small Number of Employees Means More Opportunities for You
No matter where you start out, you are likely to find yourself sitting at the bottom of the corporate totem pole. From my past job searches, I have noticed that many large firms offer very simple responsibilities to first time co-ops, such as data entry and filing. While these skills are important, a young employee may not have the chance to expand their role beyond this. This may be simply because there are 25+ other employees who are more qualified.
In a small firm there may be fewer positions, but each position offers a broader scope of employment. This may allow for greater personal growth. From my experience at a small firm, the workload is often heavy, there are few to complete the work at hand, and this means that a junior employee is often thrust into new areas of responsibility. When I started my co-op, my initial tasks were to format accounting schedules and perform data entry. Eight months later, I was writing my own reports and networking with clients at company events. If my co-op was at a large firm, I may have never gotten a chance to do these things. Instead, I was forced to grow and progressively take on more difficult assignments. For a young employee, this is an amazing chance to gain a set of diverse skills early in your career.
2. Working with Upper Management Means Learning from the Best
As a child, I always played hockey. When I was just starting out, I was not the best skater. My coach recognized my inexperience and placed me on a line with the best player on the team. Next thing I knew, my stride was corrected. In my opinion, working alongside upper management can have a similar effect on a young employee.
At a large firm, one may not have the opportunity to work with a partner or VP until the middle stages of their career. At a small firm, however, one may get to experience this from day one. During my time at MDD, I was able to work with the partner and senior managers on a daily basis. By doing this, I learned quickly from their expertise and received invaluable advice on everything from acing interviews to attracting new clients.
Working with the partner or VP can be an amazing professional learning experience. These people have built successful careers as the experts in their industry and are able to share a wealth of knowledge. Like a good professor, simply being in the same room as them exposes you to a world of information that may not be found anywhere else.
3. Learning Teamwork Skills is Essential
In today’s job market, teamwork is becoming an increasingly important skill. Many do not have experience working with teams and lack several qualities required to function as a team member in an employment setting. With only six employees in my office, I quickly began to learn the importance of this skill. Working in such a small atmosphere forces you to fit in and become a dynamic and efficient team member. Those same people are going to be working with you on every project, so you had better learn to be effective together.
Working on a small team allowed me to understand that the more I could manage the expectations of my co-workers and use my ability and time efficiently, the better off we would be. Not everyone has the chance to gain this type of workplace experience at such a young age, and from my experience thus far, I believe learning this ability early on is an immediate advantage when applying for future positions.
4. A Small Office Means Close Personal Connections
Working with the same people every day can create a tight-knit team. Strong bonds quickly form between co-workers and this becomes an ultimate networking opportunity for a new employee. It does not take long before your co-workers become friends and the office becomes a comfortable place to work.
For me, this was huge factor towards the success of my co-op. Due to the relationships I had formed, I never felt uncomfortable in the office or hesitant to ask a question. As a result, I think my job performance and motivation to succeed were positively impacted. I also believe that because of the personal relationships I formed with senior employees, I gained excellent professional references.
This contrasts deeply with starting out in a large firm. Large offices can be intimidating and personal relationships with upper management may never materialize. For an inexperienced employee, it can become easy to get lost in the crowd regardless of how hard you work. Do your part in a small office and you can ensure this will not happen to you!
5. A Strong Corporate Culture Will Bring Out Your Best
The environment you work in can have an enormous impact over the way you learn and your overall experience. Corporate culture, the shared values, attitudes, standards, beliefs and goals that characterize members of an organization is often deeply embedded in a company’s history. In a large firm, a young employee may not have any influence over this. In a small office, however, there is interaction between the same few people each day. As a result, a co-op student quickly becomes a part of the corporate culture itself. This creates an opportunity to combine individual core values with the values of those in the office, thereby forming an inclusive and efficient atmosphere. In this kind of environment, one can maximize their learning and gain valuable employability skills.
In larger firms, company values may become out of touch with employees due to sheer size. In a small firm, however, these values are always within reach. As a result, I believe one can easily connect with these beliefs and gain a stronger understanding of the importance of their job. By doing this, one can take their learning to a higher level and progress into a more productive, motivated and intelligent employee.
The past eight months at MDD have drastically changed my perception of the type of experience that is valuable for a co-op seeking their first office job. In the past, the big names and catchy resume items were all I cared about. In the end, I took a chance on a firm that I had never heard of, and boy, am I ever glad they decided to take a chance on me too.
I truly believe that working for a small company at the beginning of your co-op can provide many valuable opportunities that a large firm cannot. If your dream is to work at one of these large companies, that’s no problem. But from my experience, I say delay that chance for later in your career.
At the end of the day, it is up to you where you want to take your first co-op. Just make sure that during your job search you do not let those frequent blips on the radar go undetected. Explore a few that sound interesting! You just might not get the type of opportunities they can offer anywhere else.