June 2013

High-employment-growth firms: defining and counting them

Many high-growth firms are the youngest and the smallest firms, but much of the job creation attributable to high-growth firms comes from older firms.

Employment growth is a key indicator of labor market performance. Particularly following recessions, poli­cymakers look for the appropriate levers to pull that will accelerate employment growth. For several decades, it has been thought that small businesses are the fountain of job growth. This thinking is backed up by data from the Business Employment Dynamics (BED) program at the Bureau of Labor Sta­tistics (BLS). The BED data show that firms with fewer than 500 employees—the criteria often used for defining small firms—ac­count for about two-thirds of net jobs cre­ated.1 However, the BED data also show that 99.5 percent of all firms have fewer than 500 employees and represent 54.5 percent of to­tal private employment.2

Recent thinking in the economic and policymaking communities is that young firms and small firms are a key source of job growth.3 Small firms are both young and old, and many well-established small firms are not job generators—the corner grocery store comes to mind as well as other examples, such as neighborhood restaurants and the local dry cleaners. But some entrepreneurs dream of finding an untapped niche and starting a business that will grow to national stature; these are the entrepreneurs that policymakers have in mind when thinking of the generators of future jobs. However, the problem with targeting young, small businesses as the focus of job creation is that the outcomes of new businesses are diverse. Some new businesses grow phenomenally, but 20 percent of newly created establishments don’t survive their first year in business, 32 percent don’t survive their first 2 years, and 50 percent don’t survive their first 5 years.4

To focus on those businesses that are truly job creators, economists and policymakers are now talking about “high-growth firms.”5 High-growth firms are a very small subset of all firms but contribute substantially to job creation. In this article, we use the BED data to provide estimates of the number of high-growth firms and their contribution to employment growth in the U.S. economy. We find that 2 percent of all firms in 2009 were high-growth firms during the 2009–2012 period, yet these relatively few high-growth firms were responsible for 35 percent of all gross job gains by firms that expanded their employment over that period.

Defining high-growth firms

The first step towards estimating the number of high-growth firms and their contribution to employment growth is to define what high-growth firms are. This task, more challenging than may at first appear, starts with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) definition of high-growth firms: firms with 10 or more employees that have average annualized growth greater than 20 percent per year over a 3-year period, as measured by employment levels or employee turnover.6

One issue for defining high-growth firms is the period over which growth is measured. Note that the OECD uses a 3-year period. If the period is short—say, a year—then firms with temporary contracts might be classified as high-growth firms even though their employment growth is temporary and their employment levels will decline when the contract is completed. The period for defining high-growth firms should be long enough such that short-run transitory changes in employment are not false­ly measured as high growth. For this reason, the OECD-definition focus on growth over 3 years seems appropriate.


1 Sherry Dalton, Erik Friesenhahn, James Spletzer, and David Ta­lan, “Employment growth by size class: comparing firm and establish­ment data,” Monthly Labor Review, December 2011, pp. 3–12,

3 John C. Haltiwanger, Ron S. Jarmin, and Javier Miranda, “Who creates jobs? Small vs. large vs. young” (Cambridge, MA: National Bu­reau of Economic Research, working paper no. 16300, August 2010),

4 Carol Leming, Akbar Sadeghi, James R. Spletzer, and David M. Talan, “The role of younger and older business establishments in the U.S. labor market,” Issues in Labor Statistics, Summary 10–09, August 2010,

5 See Dane Stangler, “High growth firms and the future of the American economy,” Kaufman Foundation Research Series: Firm Formation and Economic Growth, March 2010; K. Mitusch and A. Schimke, “Gazelles—high-growth companies,” European Commis­sion, Enterprise and Industry, January 31, 2011,; and David B. Audretsch, “Determinants of high growth entrepreneurship,” report prepared for the OECD and Danish Business Authority, “High-growth firms: local policies and local deter­minants” workshop, March 28, 2012,

6 The OECD definition is from the “Eurostat-OECD manual on business demography statistics,” 2007 edition. We have replaced the term “enterprises” in the OECD definition with the term “firms.” Much of our discussion in this section is similar to the text in Sven-Olov Daunfeldt, Niklas Elert, and Dan Johansson, “The economic contribution of high-growth firms: Do definitions matter?” HUI working paper no. 35, January 1, 2010.

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About the Author

Richard L. Clayton

Richard L. Clayton is an economist in the Office of Industry Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Akbar Sadeghi

Akbar Sadeghi is an economist in the Office of Industry Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

David M. Talan

David M. Talan is an economist in the Office of Industry Employment Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics.

James R. Spletzer

James R. Spletzer, formerly an economist in the Office of Employment Research and Program Development, Bureau of Labor Statistics, is currently an economist in the Center for Economic Studies of the U.S. Census Bureau.