Small businesses are often touted as America's biggest jobs creators. But a look behind the numbers suggests the story is a bit more complicated. These companies also tend to expand--and contract--more frequently than most.

"Small businesses are more flexible; they're more likely to hire," says Gus Faucher, senior economist at PNC in Pittsburgh. "They're also more likely to lay people off. It's common to experience higher churn at small businesses than at larger companies."

Consider the health industry as an example. If you thought the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. Obamacare) would spark a surge in health industry hiring, you were right. In 2011, a year after President Obama authorized the landmark law, the fastest-growing private companies in the industry did indeed go on a hiring binge. As shown in the chart below, health-related companies that made the annual Inc. 5000 list employed more than 366,000 workers that year--that's up from approximately 288,000 employees the year prior.

That uptick was short lived, however. By 2015, Inc. 5000 companies in the health industry counted approximately 92,000 workers among their ranks. Even's botched launch in 2013 didn't help headcounts, which actually declined a precipitous 60 percent from a year earlier, to just north of 82,000. 

While the headcounts at Inc. 5000 health companies fluctuated, hiring rates in the industry overall climbed steadily over the same period--including in 2015. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which looks specifically at the health care industry and social services, companies of all sizes upped their staffing levels roughly 2.5 percent a year since 2005.

"Cause and effect is always hard to pinpoint," says Faucher, who noted that there are a variety of reasons why private employers might reduce headcount, such as a weak economy or industry-specific challenges. Still, he adds, "as implementation of the Affordable Care Act kicks in, we’ll see slower growth but it will remain positive."

The health care sector wasn't the only industry with a surprising shift in employment numbers. The Inc. 5000 companies in the food and beverage industry show another interesting flip in jobs numbers. In 2011, the industry boasted 229,000 employees. In 2015, headcount shrunk to just a quarter of that--with about 61,000 workers.

While you could explain the decline as a product of the financial crisis, another potential factor is the uptick in mergers and acquisitions in the industry. According to accounting and advisory firm Baker Tilly, the number of food and beverage deals hit 287 in 2014, up from 239 in 2011. Further, M&A activity in the first quarter of 2015 proved slightly stronger than in the first quarter of 2014, as measured by the number of announced transactions.

As for the Inc. 5000 specifically, it's no secret that honorees are often looked at as potential takeover targets. Bai Brands (No. 127), which makes antioxidant-rich beverages using coffee fruit, announced the sale of a minority stake worth $15 million to Dr Pepper Snapple Group in April. Also in 2014, two-time Inc. 5000 honoree SensoryEffects, a food and beverage company, was acquired for $567 million by Balchem Corp.  

For a deeper look behind the Inc. 5000 employment numbers, check out the chart below.


America’s Got Talent: Total Employment by Industry

Below, view the industry aggregates of Inc. 5000 companies' total employee headcount for the last five years (from 2011 – 2015). Some industries created more jobs than others.

About the data: Employee numbers are self reported; Employment and revenue numbers are as of 12/31 for base year or last revenue year (e.g., 2014 for the 2015 list); Definition of an employee is a worker receiving any level of benefits (e.g., basic paid national holidays). Seasonal employees count if they receive benefits; Human resources companies' headcount may be overrepresented, as employees on the payroll may or may not include actual company employees.