VoxEU Column Labour Markets International trade

The rise of exporters and importers in US job growth: Insights from newly released data

Assessing the effects of trade participation on domestic job growth is complicated by global supply chains – both exporters and domestic producers rely on imported inputs. This column describes findings from a new US Census Bureau public-use data product combining longitudinal information on firms, workers, and merchandise trade transactions. The statistics reveal the growing importance of exporters and importers for US job growth. A direct implication is that protectionism can dampen US traders’ competitiveness and adversely impact overall domestic job growth.

A common perception is that exports support and imports harm domestic job growth, which is consistent with recent protectionist trade policies, such as during the 2018–19 US-China trade war (Bown et al. 2018). There is evidence to support this view, especially for import-competing manufacturing firms (Acemoglu et al. 2014). However, modern production is increasingly fragmented and performed both by traditional goods producers and services providers that manage global supply chains (Bernard and Fort 2015). As a result, firms’ export and import activities are tightly linked (Antràs et al. 2017, Handley et al. 2020). Exporters and domestic producers both rely on foreign inputs for production that are a source of productivity growth (Bas and Strauss-Kahn 2014, Goldberg et al. 2008). 

Understanding the implications of export and import participation on jobs requires comprehensive and longitudinal information on firms, workers, and trade transactions. The US Census Bureau released public-use data linking job creation and business dynamics to goods trade participation in December 2021. This is the first experimental product from the US Census Bureau's Business Dynamics Statistics (BDS) programme, BDS-Goods Traders, and provides annual measures of business dynamics by four mutually exclusive goods-trading classifications: exporter-only, importer-only, exporter-importer, and non-trader (US Census Bureau 2021). 

In a recent paper (Handley et al. 2021), we utilise these statistics to describe employment growth and firm dynamics between 1992 and 2019 for goods traders and non-traders in the US economy. We highlight the following findings: 

  • On average, only 6% of all US firms are goods traders but they account for half of economy-wide employment. 
  • Goods traders support jobs not only in manufacturing but increasingly across services industries (management, retail, transportation, utilities, wholesale). 
  • Goods traders exhibit a robust premium in net job creation rates that is primarily driven by the extensive margin – opening new establishments. 
  • Goods traders’ contribution to total US job creation is growing over time, rising to more than 50% during the decade after the 2008 recession. 

The scale of US goods traders

US firms that engage in international goods trade support about half of all jobs, but trade participation is rare. Figure 1 shows that around 6% of all US firms are goods traders in any year; and only 20% of establishments are owned by goods-trading firms. Within goods trading firms, employment is even more concentrated in firms that both export and import. They represent less than 2% of all firms, but over one-third of total employment. 

Figure 1 Share of firms, establishments, and employment by trader status: US economy, average 1992–2019


Goods traders are substantially larger than non-traders. They are also more likely to survive and thus tend to be older. Traders account for 7%, 25%, and 81% of employment at small (1-19 workers), medium (20-499 workers), and large (500+ workers) firms, respectively. Goods traders are also much less likely to shut down than non-traders. On average, goods traders account for 2% of total firm deaths in the economy and insignificant shares of establishments (2%) and employment (6%) associated with firm deaths. Among goods traders, firms that both export and import are the least likely to shut down. As a result, over 95% of employment at firms that both export and import is associated with firms that are 11 years or older. In contrast, only 63% of employment at non-traders is associated with firms that are 11 years or older.

Rising goods trader premium and contribution to overall job creation between 1992 and 2019

Overall, we find a strong job creation premium for all three types of traders versus non-traders. Importer-only firms consistently grow faster than all other types, including exporters. When we control for other predictors of firm growth – firm size, age, and sector-by-year shocks – the job creation premium relative to non-traders remains robust. Figure 2 shows that this premium persists across all years and types of goods-traders. 

Figure 2 Net job creation rate premia by trader status: US economy, conditional on age controls, 1992–2019


We analyse the contribution of goods traders to aggregate job growth dynamics over time by weighting each goods trader type by their average size and decompose the average, economy-wide net job creation rate into goods trader types and job creation margins. Between 1992 and 2019 the overall growth rate is 1.18%, which is the sum of the contribution of non-traders (0.71%) and goods traders (0.47%). Thus, goods traders account for 39% of the overall net job creation rate. Two distinct patterns between traders and non-traders emerge: 

  • The margins of job growth differ between traders and non-traders. Job creation at non-traders occurs primarily at existing plants and establishments (intensive margin) rather than through net entry (extensive margin, or births minus deaths of establishments). The share of net job creation via the net entry margin for non-traders is only 13%. In contrast, the share of job creation from net entry at all goods traders is 70% of overall net job creation. Exporter-importers alone create more net jobs through net entry than non-traders. 
  • The contribution of goods-traders to net job creation grows in importance over time, especially during the recovery from the 2008 global crisis. Between 1992 and 2000, goods traders accounted for 35% of total net job creation and much less (only 10%) between 2001 and 2007. From 2008 onwards, goods traders became the dominant contributor to US job creation, with three out of five net new jobs supported by goods traders. Notably, the bulk of goods traders’ contribution to net job creation rate is driven by net entry of establishments. In contrast, after 2008, the contribution of non-traders’ job growth through the net entry margin is negligible.

US traders growing importance in annual net job creation across sectors

Goods traders engage in activities across a diverse set of sectors. We document that all firms in the US economy have been shifting away from goods-producing to services-providing industries, but this pattern is more pronounced for firms that export.1

The decline in goods-producing employment shares between 1992 and 2019 is four percentage points for non-traders but 10 percentage points, three percentage points, and 18 percentage points for exporter-only, importer-only, and exporter-importer firms, respectively. The increase in goods traders’ employment shares in services-providing industries reflects not only a secular trend but also the shift by manufacturers to increasingly sell services (Fort et al. 2020). The higher shares of service sector employment at goods traders are also consistent with ‘factoryless’ production arrangements where firms outsource processing and manufacturing activities while retaining ownership of the intellectual property and controlling sales to customers (Kamal 2019).

Goods traders displayed higher net employment growth premia in the manufacturing sector in years after 2006 (Figure 3). From about 1999 to 2010, manufacturing employment growth at traders and non-traders is negative on average. But while non-traders continued to shrink, goods-trading manufacturers had positive net job creation from 2011 to 2019. Total manufacturing employment increased by about 10% from 2011 to 2019. Because the share of goods traders in manufacturing employment averages 84%, this recovery would not have occurred if all manufacturers grew at the same (negative) rate as non-traders. 

Figure 3 Net job creation rates in manufacturing: Traders versus non-traders


In the retail (Figure 4) and wholesale trade (Figure 5) sectors, goods traders drive net job creation. Goods-traders display higher employment growth in all years from 1992 to 2019. But similar to manufacturing, non-trader employment growth is more likely to be negative, especially after 2007 and in the wholesale sector. Since goods- traders represent 60% of retail and 70% of wholesale trade employment, job growth in these sectors is strongly tied to firms with international trade participation. 

Figure 4 Net job creation rates in retail trade: Traders versus non-traders


Figure 5 Net job creation rates in wholesale trade: Traders versus non-traders


Take-aways using Business Dynamics Statistics of US goods traders

The newly released, public-use US Census Bureau statistics on the business dynamics of US goods traders offer the first comprehensive view of goods traders’ contribution to employment growth and firm dynamics in the overall economy and across firm size, firm age, geographic divisions, and detailed sectors. 

Our analysis suggests that goods traders who adjusted to and survived global shocks such as China’s integration in global markets were more resilient to future shocks like the 2008-2009 global crisis – a pattern of ‘survive, then thrive’.

In the goods-producing sector, the divergence in manufacturing employment growth between goods traders and non-traders especially after 2007 is consistent with direct imports enabling manufacturing goods traders to access cheaper inputs, raise output, and survive Chinese import competition and other negative shocks. The prevalence of the Chinese import competition in more labour-intensive industries like apparel and leather coupled with the dominance of goods traders in technology-intensive sectors suggest that non-traders were more likely to be directly and negatively impacted by Chinese import competition. 

In the services-providing sectors, the importance of goods traders to net job creation is consistent with creation of new opportunities for domestic job creation tied to participation in international markets. 

These new statistics corroborate evidence of job loss from import competition in the 2000s, especially in manufacturing. But they also reveal that over the past decade, goods-traders supported a large share of jobs at new establishments and firms in both goods and services sectors. In this longer view, we find that import and export participation jointly support US job creation. Collectively, these results imply that import protectionism is likely to hurt domestic job creation.

We hope these facts demonstrate the scope of the Business Dynamics Statistics-Goods Traders to inform researchers and practitioners on the role of international trade participation in US business dynamics and job growth. The datasets are available at: BDS-Goods Traders.

Authors’ note: The Census Bureau's Disclosure Review Board and Disclosure Avoidance Officers have reviewed this data product for unauthorised disclosure of confidential information and have approved the disclosure avoidance practices applied to this release (DRB Approval Numbers: CBDRB-FY21-270). Any opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Census Bureau. 


Acemoglu, D, D Autor, D Dorn, G Hanson and B Price (2014), “The Rise of China and the Future of U.S. Manufacturing”, VoxEU.org, 28 September.

Antràs, P, T Fort and F Tintlenot (2017), “Benefits of Importing: Evidence from U.S. Firms’ Global Sourcing Decisions”, VoxEU.org, 12 March.

Bas, M and V Strauss-Kahn (2014), “Sourcing Foreign Inputs to Improve Firm Performance”, VoxEU.org, 14 July.

Bernard, A B and T C Fort (2015), “Factoryless Goods Producing Firms”, American Economic Review Papers and Proceedings 105(5): 518-23. 

Bown, C, E Jung and Z Lu (2018), “Trump, China, Tariffs: From Soybeans to Semiconductors”, VoxEU.org, 19 June.

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Goldberg, P, A Khandelwal and N Pavcnik (2008), “Imported Inputs and Domestic Growth in India”, VoxEU.org, 1 December.

Fort, T, J Pierce and P K Schott (2020), “The Evolution of U.S. Manufacturing”, VoxEU.org, 18 August.

Handley, K, F Kamal and W Ouyang (2021), “A Long View of Employment Growth and Firm Dynamics in the United States: Importers vs. Exporters vs. Non-Traders”, U.S. Census Bureau Center for Economic Studies Working Paper 21-38.

Handley, K, F Kamal and R Monarch (2020), “Beyond Imports: The Supply Chain Effects of Trade Protection on Export Growth”, VoxEU.org, 1 September.

Kamal, F (2019), “U.S. Factoryless Goods Producers”, VoxEU.org, 7 July.

National Bureau of Economic Research (2021), “Business Cycle Dating”.

US Census Bureau (2021), “Business Dynamics Statistics of U.S. Goods Traders (BDS-Goods Traders)”.


1 Follows BLS (2021) definition of goods-producing and services-providing industries.

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