Where can I find historical data about employment for large companies?
April 4, 2011 1:46 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking for historical employment, revenue and profit information for the top 500 businesses in the world, and I don't know where or how to look for it.

I've dug around in the Bureau of Labor Statistics, to no avail.

The data that I'm after is fairly specific: I'd like to get historical data on the number of people employed at the largest, most profitable companies in the world. I'm also interested in profits/employee over time.

See this post for the tech world.

My hypothesis is that the profit/employee ratio is increasing and that the number of employees/gross revenue ratio is decreasing. I have no idea if this is true or not, it's just a hunch, but if it is true, I'd also love to know the rate at which these factors are changing.

posted by Freen to Grab Bag (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
a better way to do this analysis is using aggregate industry data by NAICS code for US companies. Comparing the 500 largest companies over time is going to create issues of shifting mix from say manufacturing (US Steel, GM) to Retail (Target, Wal-Mart). Also you have the issue of defining "largest", and issues of sample bias. Just use industry data and it'll be a better analysis.

You can get that data from the economic census at census.gov.
posted by JPD at 1:52 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: JPD: That shift is actually the thing I'm interested in. If you look at the fortune 500, you'll see it's increasingly technology companies. I'd like to know how the profit/employee has changed over time across the largest companies. My hypothesis is that in the past, to be in the fortune 500, you literally needed an army, and the profit per employee was low, and now, due to increases in productivity brought about by technology a firm needs fewer people to generate massive profits.
posted by Freen at 2:06 PM on April 4, 2011

If it's true that increases in productivity means a company needs fewer people then profit per employee would increase, assuming increasing levels of profitability.

You need to think carefully about what you want to measure here because your assumptions don't make sense.
posted by dfriedman at 2:16 PM on April 4, 2011

Yeah - but that's a bad analysis - your model of economic factors is too simplistic. Its going to give you the answer that you want but it doesn't mean anything. Better to look at labor productivity by industry to make your point.

Not to mention tech companies specifically outsource all of their manual labor. Apple may not have a ton of employees, but Foxconn/Hon Hai literally has a million employees.

Fortune collects the data BTW. Using SEC info will be hard, as the don't normally require companies to disclose how many employees in a way that can be automatically retrieved.
posted by JPD at 2:17 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: Total FTEs and gross profits? If you're talking about public companies, this should be in annual reports or 10-K filings, and aggregated by 3rd parties like Yahoo & Google Finance.

For Yahoo Finance, go to a company and then go to the sub-page called Profile for FTEs. Here it is for Dell. The gross profit is reported under the income statement or as a line under Key Statistics. Then you can do the actual calculation yourself. You could also use a script and Excel to pull it down, probably.

Another site that will automatically calculate revenue per FTE (and not profit) is advfn.com - type in a company and go to company information, and you'll find it under Key Figures.

Obviously folks are pointing out all sorts of good conflating factors as well, including what constitutes an FTE and who's excluded.
posted by deludingmyself at 2:21 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: There's a few problems you're going to run into here.

First, not all of the top 500 most profitable companies in the world are publicly traded. Koch Industries, Bechtel, Ernst & Young, and PricewaterhouseCoopers are all multi-billion dollar companies and are all privately held. Koch does at least $100 billion a year, putting it well into the top 20. The latter three all do more than $20 billion, putting them around the top 100 or so. None of these have all that much incentive to publish their accounting data, and a lot of them simply don't. Mutual insurers are a little easier to get info on, but they're still a bit more tight-fisted with their data than anyone who has to do SEC filings.

Second, not all of the top 500 most profitable companies in the world are American. Of the Global 500, only three of the top ten are US corporations. You can probably get good data on Barclays and BP, both of which are British, but Gazprom? They're owned by the Russian government, so even if you can get data, whether or not it bears any relationship to actual money is anybody's guess. And this is to say nothing of I&C Bank of China. I mean, good luck with that.

Third, even if you can get profitability numbers, you won't get employment numbers. Not anything reliable anyway, especially with overseas outfits. Even companies required to make public filings as part of their regulatory environment tend to be under no obligation to disclose their employment figures. All those "employers creating jobs" or "employers laying people off" numbers you hear on the news? Truth of the matter is that that's basically a poll. While it has a little more rigor than your standard Gallup type thing, it's still little more than rough guesswork.

Basically, what you're asking for is a multi-year project with the makings of a graduate-level thesis. This data does, in fact, exist, but simply getting your hands on it, let alone doing anything remotely interesting with it, is going to be a lot of work. You could save yourself a lot of time and energy if you limited your scope to publicly traded American companies. Those numbers, at least, are easy to get.

Furthermore, your sense that the Fortune 500 is "increasingly technology companies" seems to simply be wrong. Take a look at the top 100. HP definitely counts, though they're a huge hardware manufacturer, so they're more like GE than Microsoft. So are IBM, Dell, Apple, Cisco, and Intel. Microsoft is really the only straight up "technology company" in the top 100, unless you want to count defense contractors, which again, are really just manufacturers. I guess Amazon might theoretically count, though they're primarily a retailer. They've certainly done snazzy things with technology, but they sell commodities, not technology per se. Drop to the top 200 and you pick up Google and Oracle, but all in all, I'm thinking there are probably less than ten straight-up tech companies in the top 500.

Look, these guys are huge. If Wal-Mart's revenue were a GDP, it would be the 25th highest in the world. Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil and would be 34th and 35th, respectively. By contrast, Microsoft, which is still a damn big company, would be somewhere around 63d. Most tech companies measure their revenue in millions, not billions, orders of magnitude below the kinds of companies we're talking about.
posted by valkyryn at 2:46 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: Deludingmyself: thanks.

dfriedman and JPD: Let me see if I can be more clear about what I want to measure: Are fewer employees required to be among the largest companies in the world as time goes by? If so, every year, rate of change of the number of employees year over year?

This is just to satisfy my own curiosity. I think I can pull out the data with google finance, or some such, if they provide historical data.
posted by Freen at 2:50 PM on April 4, 2011

Response by poster: valkyryn: I think publicly traded companies should provide enough of a sample size to start to estimate whether or not profit/employee and employee/firm have been significantly changing over the past few decades and what direction they are tending to go, and at what rate.

The reason I mention technology is less as an industrial vertical, but as a multiplier effect for productivity: in essence, the whiz bang things Amazon and Walmart have done around selling commodities that do not scale with man/hours, but scale much more independently to employment. (more servers does mean more engineers, but it's not like having more stevedores on the piers, if you know what I mean)
posted by Freen at 2:56 PM on April 4, 2011

Then what you're looking for is going to show up in straight-up productivity numbers.

We already have those numbers. Productivity has been growing faster than inflation for some time now.
posted by valkyryn at 3:54 PM on April 4, 2011

Best answer: Freen--

Focusing on getting the data you are actually interested in rather than like, the validity of your assumptions, your profile says you are in New York. If you go the Science, Industry and Business branch of the New York Public Library, you can use Bloomberg (and probably other stuff like CapIQ) which is chock-full of this type of data. SIBL is a pretty awesome and IMHO underutilized resource.

As to your actual question, to some extent what you are talking about is trivially true. Broadly, in the developed world, worker output per worked hour has increased thanks in a large part to information technology. This is how we get per-capita GDP growth, which, during the 90s expansion of computers into everything, we had a good bit of. Whether that shows up in profit is a whole different question (firms could reinvest their gains, for instance). This is well and widely known though, you don't need to do any research.

As for whether this is specifically affected the directly-employed counts of firms with large market caps, or tech firms, well, everyone else has brought up some good issues. You'd probably interested in looking at the companies that have the highest per-employee profit though. Even this is tricky to make meaningful. Like, what about an insanely wealthy athelete? What about a boutique investment bank or law firm? Do these 'count'? Among larger companies, though, there have been some examples of highly per-employee profitable companies that kind of support the sorts of ideas you are thinking of: iD Software, Nintendo, etc. It doesn't take that many people to design Wii Sports and you can sell a ton of copies of it.

The thing about companies though, is that just because they are capable of making a large profit per employee doesn't mean that it is wise for them to do so, or that they will. Imagine if Google fired everyone who didn't work on its core search technology and related ad business. No Android, no GMail, no self-driving cars, no maps, no Google Voice or Talk, etc. Google's per-employee profit would presumably rise dramatically, but to what end? There are two big problems with this approach: one, it is probably not a good business strategy as it would endanger the long-term viability of google's current core business, and two, shareholders don't necessarily care about per-employee profit; they care about return on their investment. If you can use my invested capital to generate a little bit more return for me by hiring more people, do it. I don't care if that brings down your average a little.

In some theoretical world companies would only invest capital in the highest-margin activities, and their employment statistics would reflect this, but the real world is too fluid and complex for this. When firms like Apple and Berkshire and Microsoft build up huge cash reserves, investors clamor saying, "you are not generating a good return on this cash", but in times of disappearing credit it allows people like Berkshire to swoop in and put their cash to use at very favorable terms. It allows firms like Apple and Microsoft to weather tsumani-induced rises in component prices or economic cycle-induced drops in demand. Or, to put it in terms related to your question, when Apple launched its retail strategy however long ago, they took on a huge number of relatively (by Apple standards) low-per-employee-profit retail workers (and they were widely criticized for this), but they've been able to use this channel to sell high-margin goods like operating systems.
posted by jeb at 3:55 PM on April 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

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