Only 14 percent of the nation's small-business owners offer a 401(k) plan to their employees, and 63 percent do not offer any retirement benefits at all, according to a new survey.

And those levels do not appear headed for change. Just 17 percent of respondents said they feel a strong obligation to offer retirement benefits, and 46 percent said they felt no obligation, according to the study by Harris Interactive, a Rochester, N.Y., market-research firm and ShareBuilder, an online brokerage.

The survey found that owners who do not provide retirement benefits fail to do so for a variety of reasons. Fifty-four percent said they didn't have enough employees to make it worthwhile, 28 percent cited a financial inability to match contributions, and 26 percent blamed unstable business circumstances.

"Small businesses employ half of all private-sector employees in America and serve as our economy's growth engine," ShareBuilder CEO Jeff Seely said in a statement. "Given the rising cost of health care, uncertainty about Social Security, and longer life expectancy, it's imperative that America's small business owners understand their crucial role in addressing the looming retirement crisis."

However, some companies have found that shelling out for retirement benefits helps them compete for talent against bigger competitors. Guy Stone, president of Blue Tech, a San Diego-based IT-consulting firm, now offers a 401(k) with employer contribution for employees with tenures longer than three months. "We're at a very competitive point in the IT-services business, and we're always competing with large corporations," he said. "We have to match or exceed their benefits."

Stone agreed that offering such benefits is an increased burden for smaller firms, but less of a financial one than many might think.

"It's the time commitment more than anything else," Stone said. "Someone needs to implement it, keep track of it all, and advise employees on what they can and cannot do."