Building an employee-owned economy can create a more prosperous future. Employee-owners benefit from higher retirement savings and increased job security, while employee-owned companies anchor jobs in local communities. That future begins by increasing the number of employee-owners.
Some companies start out as employee-owned, but the vast majority convert after operating for some time under a different ownership structure. Since launching Certified Employee-Owned in 2017, we have spoken to over 1,000 employee-owned companies. Fewer than 10 began as employee-owned. It’s difficult to generalize, but based on our experience we think that over 95% of employee-owned companies were created through conversion.
The importance of conversion means that advocates of employee ownership need a good understanding of the broader business landscape. The best source on the size and number of American businesses is the Census Bureau’s Statistics of U.S. Businesses (SUSB). In this article we will use the SUSB to analyze the business landscape and draw implications for the employee ownership community. Our key takeaways include:
According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, there were 32.5 million American businesses in 2021, but there’s a catch. That number is skewed because it counts every single corporation, including those setup by independent contractors and even shell companies created solely to hold an asset. There’s no bright line between a legal corporation and what a normal person would consider a business, but a reasonable breakpoint might be having at least one paid employee. That is the line used by the SUSB, and in 2019 there were 6,102,412 businesses meeting this criterion.
The concept of employee ownership only starts to have real meaning when a company includes multiple non-founder employees. While there are exceptions, most companies exploring employee ownership have at least 10 total employees. A company of this size will generally have the resources that enable conversion while also seeing benefits from a formal employee ownership structure. Using the SUSB’s size categories, we found that in 2019 there were 1,311,698 businesses with at least 10 employees. We estimate that there are roughly 6,000 employee-owned companies in America (our Directory provides an up-to-date list of all the ones we know about). That means that employee-owned companies are just 0.5% of the total number of companies with at least 10 employees.
The chart above shows how the number of companies with at least 10 employees has changed since 1999. It dipped slightly at the turn of the millennium following the dotcom crash, increased steadily in the early 2000s before dipping again after 2006 and plunging after the 2008 financial crisis. After hitting a bottom of 1,173,373 in 2011, the number of companies with at least 10 employees has seen year-over-year increases every year through 2019. For the employee ownership community, it’s encouraging to see that the number of companies that are large enough to consider employee ownership has been steadily rising for almost a decade.
Analyzing the SUSB size categories, we see that US businesses have a skewed distribution of size. While most firms are small, most people work at large employers. Roughly 30% of private-sector workers work at the 1,112 firms with over 10,000 employees, while the 4,790,714 businesses with fewer than 10 employees account for less than 10% of private sector employment. In other words, firms large enough to support an employee ownership program account for over 90% of the private-sector workforce.
The skewed distribution of firm size presents a tradeoff for employee ownership advocates: do we focus on the number of companies that are employee-owned or the number of people working at employee-owned companies? If we are interested in maximizing the number of employee-owned firms, we’re going to have the most success focusing on small companies. But if we are interested in maximizing the total number of employee-owners, the emphasis should be on the big companies.
This tradeoff is mirrored in the change in firms and employment from 1999 to 2019. The bulk of firm and employment growth was driven by large firms. Over this time period, the total number of firms with at least 10 employees increased 9% and employment at these companies increased 22%. Almost all of the increase in the number of firms was driven by companies with less than 500 employees, while 75% of the change in employment was driven by firms with 500 or more employees. The trend is clear: while there are more companies now than 20 years ago, the bulk of new private sector employment over the past two decades has been due to growth of larger firms.
Finally, we use the SUSB industry categories to analyze changes in employment and total number of firms by industry. It’s worth noting that all categories here are based on the North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS) and that the SUSB excludes railroad employees, agricultural production employees, and most government employees. The following chart shows employment by Industry for 2019 for all firms with at least 10 employees.
Below is a table with both employment and number of firms by industry. Note that the number of firms doesn’t align exactly with the previous section, likely because some firms operate in multiple industries.
The four largest industries by employment - Healthcare & Social Assistance, Retail Trade, Accommodation & Food Services, and Admin, Support & Waste Management - are all part of the service sector. Manufacturing, once the backbone of the American economy, is now the fifth largest sector by employment. Construction and Professional, Scientific & Technical Services, and Other Services (excluding Public Admin) are notable for having a high number of firms of a smaller average size.
Finally we look at how the number of firms and employment by industry have changed over the last two decades. This chart above shows the percent change from 1999 to 2019. Dramatic increases of over 50% employment occurred in many service sectors including: Accommodation & Food Services; Educational Services; Health Care & Social Assistance; Arts, Entertainment & Recreation, Professional, and Scientific & Technical Services; and Admin, Support & Waste Management. Several industries show signs of consolidation with increasing employment and decreasing number of firms: Information; Finance & Insurance; Retail Trade; and Wholesale Trade. Finally, the dramatic decline in manufacturing can be seen in a 26% decrease in the number of firms and 28% decrease in total employment.
Combining current firm size and employment with growth trends can help identify large and growing industries which would be good to target for the expansion of employee ownership. Based on the above charts, Health Care & Social Assistance; Accommodation & Food Service; and Professional, Scientific & Technical Services merit further investigation.