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Nearly half of private workforce employed by big companies

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Big companies are also the big heavyweights when it comes to employment, according to new data released this week by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About 46 percent of Americans who work for a private company are employed by a firm with 500 or more employees, according to the most recent BLS data from March of 2011. That translates into approximately 50 million workers, the BLS said.

About 28 percent, or 30.4 million Americans, are working for a company with 49 employees or less, while about 26 percent, or 28.3 million, are working for a company with 50 to 499 employees.

The big employers also have seen the biggest growth in employment over the past two decades, according to the BLS.

As of March of 2011, the smallest companies by employee size were employing about 11 percent more people than in April of 1990, according to the data. Employment at the mid-sized firms is up 13 percent over that time period, while the largest employers have seen employment jump by 29 percent.


“The small size class is fairly flat whereas a lot of the growth is coming in the large firms,” said Nathan Clausen, an economist with the BLS.

Clausen said it doesn’t appear that growth in the bigger companies is coming from small companies getting bigger. Although that happens, he said, it’s also true that larger companies get smaller. That means they’re basically canceling each other out.

Still, he said government economists are just beginning to take a more detailed look at the data, to try to figure out what's behind these trends.

Already, they are finding some interesting things.

For example, Clausen said, in the early 1990s the leisure and hospitality industry was dominated by smaller employers. But in the mid-1990s, larger employers quickly began dominating that industry.

That makes sense to anyone who travels regularly and has seen larger hotel and other chains become much more prevalent.

Clausen said the economists also noticed that during the Internet bubble of the late 1990s and early 2000s, much of the employment growth came not from small employers but from large ones.

That may have been because the startups that got so much attention during that time were snapped up by big firms. Or it may have been because the small employers created a lot of business for the big ones by ordering their products and using their services.

Clausen noted that the data looked narrowly at jobs, so it’s not clear whether the startups were contributing more to the economy in other ways.

“Startups maybe were generating more income, but in terms of jobs … the jobs were being created not in the startups in the large companies,” he said.

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