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Data Show Widespread Employee Ownership in U.S.

Data from the 2010 General Social Survey show that 18.7 million American workers own stock in their company through a 401(k) plan, ESOP, direct stock grant, or similar plan, while 9.3 million hold stock options (some employees have options and own stock through other plans, so these numbers are not additive). That means that 17.4% of the total workforce, but 36.0% of those who work for companies that have stock, own stock through some kind of benefit plan, while 9.3% of the workforce, but 23.8%% of those in companies with stock, hold options.

The survey source is the 2010 General Social Survey, one of the largest national surveys on work and other issues. The sample size was 795 working adults who were asked very specific questions about their participation in these plans. The survey is a project of the National Opinion Research Center. The analysis and questions were designed by Douglas Kruse and Joseph Blasi of Rutgers University and Richard Freeman of Harvard University for the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) Shared Capitalism Project. The project received funding from several sources, including the NBER, the Employee Ownership Foundation, the Beyster Institute, the Plan Sponsor Council of America,and the NCEO.

The data show a decline in the number of people owning company stock through a benefit plan or stock grant from the 2002 numbers, when 21.2% of the workforce owned shares this way. The median ownership holdings, however, remained at $10,000. The percentage of workers receiving options fell from 13.2% to 8.7%. In the ownership case, the post-Enron concern with underdiversification in 401(k) plans seems the likely cause of the decline, as ESOPs appear to have grown over this time. With options, new shareholder approval rules, growing concern with dilution, and new accounting rules are the culprit, although the decline is far less than pundits anticipated. It was widely predicted that rank-and-file options would largely disappear; instead, they simply shrank to about the level they were in the late 1990s.

Confirming these data, an online survey of 2,373 U.S. adults conducted by Harris Interactive between April 11 and 13, 2007 for The Wall Street Journal Online found that 13% of those surveyed said that their company provided stock as a benefit (presumably primarily though ESOPs or 401(k) plans), while 9% said they received stock options. The stock options number is almost precisely the same as the number reported in the 2006 General Social Survey. The number receiving company stock is slightly different. The GSS data report 20 million employees have company stock; the poll indicates that 18.8 million do, although the questions are not phrased exactly the same way.

The tables below provide details on the data.

Employee Ownership Trends 2002-2010

% of all private sector employees% of employees in for-profit companies% of employees in companies with stock
% of employees covered:
Own company stock*21.2%17.5%17.4%20.8%36.0%
Hold stock options or similar grants13.1%9.3%8.7%11.2%23.8%
# of employees covered (in millions):
Own company stock23.020.018.718.718.7
Hold stock options14.310.
Sample size:
*Includes ESOPs, 401(k) plans, stock options and similar grants, and ESPPs.

Change in Ownership and Ownership Value for Employees in Survey in Both 2006 and 2010

Percentage of employees reporting:
Own company stock18.3%23.5%
Stock options7.4%8.5%
Value of ownership as percentage of annual earnings for employee owners:
Median percentage of ownership purchased by employees:

Demographic Trends

When broken down by demographics, a few trends are striking. As the size of the company increases, so does the likelihood both of owning company stock and holding options. The same pattern is found for income. The table below shows the details.
% Owning Company Stock% Holding Stock Options
Yearly earnings
# of employees
1-9 2.8%0.6%
100-499 14.4%7.4%
1,000-1,999 20.8%6.5%
2,000-9,999 24.8%17.2%
10,000+ 39.9%21.6%

Employee Involvement

A striking finding of the study is that sharing ownership (as well as profit sharing and gainsharing programs) is correlated with increased employee involvement in work-level decisions. Cause and effect here are uncertain. It could be that the companies likely to set up participation programs, for instance, are more likely to share rewards, or the causality could go the other way (or both ways). In any event, about 41.6% of employees with options and 43% of those owning company stock are on an employee involvement team, compared to 30.2% for the sample, while 38.6% of those owning stock and 44.0% of those with options are on self-directed work teams compared to 33.3% for the entire sample. These numbers understate the difference, however, because roughly 20% of the sample owns stock or options. If these were excluded, the comparisons would be even more significant.

Data Tables

For tables with more data, click here (PDF format).

A Note on NCEO Support for This Project

The NCEO does not pay any overhead costs of any kind related to contributions or grants. When we contribute to research, which do very rarely, it is our policy that funds be used strictly for research expenses alone and not for any overhead costs or other costs related to grants or gifts.

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