On the job: who works where?

Once upon a time — the time of the first-century poet Juvenal — the phrase black swan implied something that didn’t exist.  More recently, the black swan theory refers either to highly improbable things, or to outliers with an outsized influence on events.

Who you callin' an outlier?Of course, if you had lived in western Australia before the arrival of Europeans, black swans would have been the only ones you’d ever heard of.

Which simply says most people go with what they know.

I’ve seen something of this in online discussions about the world of work.  If all your virtual dealings are with consultants, academics, freelancers, and and the folks who contract with them, you can easily get the impression everyone’s working independently.

Even though I’m a consultant myself, I’m skeptical about that broad a generalization.  So I’m revisiting something I wrote about more than three years ago: who works where (or, who’s an employee and who’s not)?

I’m getting this information from various business and non-employer statistics published by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

  • In 2008, there were 21.4 million non-employers in the U.S.  Their total receipts were $963 billion, or roughly $45,000 per firm.
    • According to the U.S. Census Bureau, a non-employer is an organization with no paid employees, with $1,000 in business receipts, and subject to federal income tax. 
      (For some reason, a non-employer in the construction industry needs only $1 in receipts to be counted.)
  • In 2007, there were 120 million employees working at 6 million firms.  Total receipts were $29.8 trillion.

Certainly with the economic downturn since 2007, those figures have changed, but I doubt they’ve changed that much.  Even if every single non-employer were a unique individual, and even if none of the non-employers also had a job working for someone else, 120 out of 141 million people in the U.S. were employees.  And, as the Census Bureau says, “Most non-employers are self-employed individuals operating very small unincorporated businesses, which may or may not be the owner’s principal source of income.”

I wondered where all those non-employers worked.    Here’s a breakdown by number of non-employer firms — in other words, the fields where you’d find these folks:

  • Professional, scientific, technical services: 3 million
  • Construction: 2.5 million
  • Real estate, rental, leasing: 2.1 million
  • Retail trade: 1.9 million
    • “Store and non-store” retail — the latter would include things like catalog and home-based sales
  • Other services: 3 million
    • A catchall taking in everything from equipment repair to dating services to pet care

Four of these sectors (construction, real estate, retail, and “other services”) account for almost half of all non-employers.  Though perhaps the numbers would look different if the Census Bureau had a category for “social media expert.”

Meanwhile, back where you find 120,000,000 people:

  • 5.1% of employees work for firms having 0 – 5 employees.
    • The zero apparently takes in seasonal work when the work’s out of season.
  • 30.3% of employees work for firms having 5 – 99 employees.
  • 14.2% work for firms with 100 – 499 employees.
  • 5.2% work for first with 500 – 999 employees
  • 12.4% work for firms having 1,000 – 4,999 employees.
  • 32.7% work for firms with 5,000 or more employees

All this to demonstrate that most Americans who work, work for someone else.  And of the 120 million who are employees, nearly half work for firms with at least 1,000 employees.

I don’t have a big conclusion to finish this off with a flourish.  I just think this kind of information helps set in context some workplace learning and performance-improvement issues.

CC-licensed image of a black swan by specksinsd.

4 thoughts on “On the job: who works where?

  1. I’ve gone back and forth, in my life, from “firms with from 0-1 employees” to larger enterprises.

    When I’m on my own, I never think of getting “training” or “improving my skills” as something that I do. I take on a project or a commitment, and then go learn what I need to (and just that much) to be able to complete the task.

    It’s only when I’m spending someone else’s money that I spend a lot of time “skilling up” just so that I’m sure I have a bunch of various skills on hand in case I might need them.

    And I sell training to other people. Sheesh.

  2. Dick, for most of my career, I worked for large organizations. One advantage of size is the potential for economy of scale, I suppose. One disadvantage is the potential for inertia. The answer to assessment or evaluation of skills often becomes some sort of certification or testimonial that all too often says, “You were exposed to…” It’s as if competence is the result of a cognitive tanning bed.

  3. I have always wanted to be a statistic!

    I’m one of those non-employer self-employed types who has an employer as a the primary source of income. And, as of this year will begin contributing to the tax man for my non-employer status.

    What I find (simple observation) is most non-employers tend to learn better and more frequent. Why? If I am driven to work for myself, then I am more likely to be driven to educate myself and stay abreast to my niche.

    Curious as to what the numbers will look like after the U.S. Small Business Administration adds “Social Media Expert” to the ‘other’ category.

  4. Kevin, I think you and Dick are saying something similar: when you find yourself inclined to learn something new*, you’re seeing a connection between it and things you need to or very much want to do.

    In other words, the motivation for learning is tied to the desire to apply new knowledge and skills in some chosen direction.

    * It seems to me that “learn something old” is just a roundabout way of saying “recall.”

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