The 10 most common industries for businesses with no employees

The 10 most common industries for businesses with no employees

Solopreneurs thrive across many industries. Next Insurance used Census Bureau data to identify 10 industries with the most nonemployer businesses.

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Many people dream of being their own boss and working on their own terms and schedules. Some might choose to become self-employed free agents or contractors. Others may pick up freelance work while finding another full-time job, only to realize they love the freelance life. And others might decide to turn passions or hobbies into full-time paying gigs.

Those who want their own business without the responsibility of managing any employees are sometimes called "solopreneurs." They are often workers who want to answer to themselves when building a successful career. Some might think that solo workers may only be in more creative fields—think freelance writers, designers, or artists—but today's solopreneurs span a variety of industries ranging from financial services to health care.

Next Insurance, a provider of sole proprietor business insurance, used Census Bureau data to identify the 10 industries with the most nonemployer businesses. The "other" industry category was excluded from this analysis. The Census Bureau receives nonemployer business data from IRS business income tax returns.

Although solopreneurs must source their own income and pay their own operating expenses, health and business insurance, and income taxes, their ranks are growing. In 2020, the most recent year available, there were about 27.2 million nonemployer businesses across the country, Census Bureau data shows, a 19% increase from 2012.

One perk for many solopreneurs is a higher annual income. In 2022, that averaged $54,232, $107 higher than the median income for all workers, according to the Chamber of Commerce. Incomes can vary by industry and the type of work available.

#10. Finance and insurance

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 758,239
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 2.8%
- Average revenue, 2020: $91,310

Typical roles for solopreneurs in this sector include independent financial advisors, financial planners, and insurance agents. Solo workers with investment banking experience can advise companies on different types of corporate finance deals.

Newer types of jobs in this sector include virtual CFOs, who give financial leadership to small and medium-sized businesses that otherwise couldn't afford such expertise. Some roles, such as insurance agents, require state licensure. Each state's requirements are different, but they may include training and an exam.

#9. Educational services

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 760,552
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 2.8%
- Average revenue, 2020: $15,402

Subject matter experts can earn money as tutors, and the rise of online platforms and hiring marketplaces allows users to easily post jobs, upload resumes, and apply for work. 

Independent educational consultants help students and their families with educational planning, including admissions to schools, colleges, gap year programs, and programs for those with special needs. More people are taking up this line of work—the Independent Educational Consultants Association estimates in 2024, 8,500 people will have full-time work in this field, more than double the number from 2015.

#8. Arts, entertainment, and recreation

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 1.3 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 4.9%
- Average revenue, 2020: $26,440

Solopreneurs in the arts can have extremely rewarding careers, but work can also be feast or famine. Sometimes, clients may be clamoring for certain skills—in 2023, graphic design is the most in-demand creative skill, according to Upwork.

On the other end of the spectrum, many actors have a hard time finding steady, well-paying work in their field. The median hourly wage for actors was just $17.94 in 2022, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that rarely translates into year-round work. During the 2023 SAG-AFTRA strike, the union noted that only 12.7% of its members made the $26,470 minimum to qualify for the organization's health insurance program.

#7. Health care and social assistance

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 2.0 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 7.4%
- Average revenue, 2020: $35,814

Nearly 8 in 10 adults aged 50 and over want to grow old at home, according to a 2021 AARP study. This attitude provides an opportunity for health care workers who want to strike out on their own.

Concierge nurses take on patients who subscribe to personalized care, including house calls, which allows them to get needed health care without leaving the house. Clinical social workers can also operate in solo practices to provide a variety of therapies, counseling, crisis intervention, and expert witness testimony.

#6. Retail trade

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 2.3 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 8.3%
- Average revenue, 2020: $43,617

Sole store owners often have niche businesses like specialty bakeries, candle makers, or antique stores that can have limited opening hours. But being a solo retailer doesn't always mean that you have a shop that customers physically visit. 

Thanks to e-commerce and social media, nonstore retailers have more ways of getting their goods to the public. In addition to traditional avenues like having a stall at a craft fair and managing a vending machine, retailers can now sell their own beauty products, artwork, crafts, clothing, and games directly to their customers via social media accounts, personal websites, and online marketplaces for independent sellers.

#5. Administrative and support and waste management and remediation services

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 2.6 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 9.4%
- Average revenue, 2020: $23,833

This industry covers a wide range of services, including people with office experience who can provide administrative skills. Virtual assistants deliver needed admin support—often to other solopreneurs—on a contract basis and often from home, which allows for more flexible hours. Office clerks, business support, and executive assistants may work directly with their clients onsite or one on one remotely. Or many companies may prefer having a contractor step in as needed only during seasonal busy periods.

There are also a range of businesses in this field that are direct service providers including travel agencies, locksmiths, pest control, and waste removal. Independent travel agents have evolved to become trusted advisors for many travelers, particularly in the cruise industry. Landscapers may work for a set roster of client homes, while pest control, locksmiths, and facilities support are often called upon only for one-time contract help.

#4. Construction

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 2.9 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 10.6%
- Average revenue, 2020: $64,995

The construction industry can be highly cyclical, but there are opportunities for workers to strike out on their own. Just over 1 in 5 construction workers is self-employed, according to the National Association of Home Builders. Those numbers can fluctuate depending on the economy.

Although housing inventory is still tight, higher interest rates are causing less demand for new housing. During these downturns, builders and contractors lay off workers, some of whom go it alone. The Home Builders Institute expects the housing construction market to turn around in 2024.

#3. Real estate and rental and leasing

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 3 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 11%
- Average revenue, 2020: $103,416

A pandemic-related real estate boom lured many to create solo careers in this industry, known for its flexible work schedule and potential for high commissions. Over 156,000 people got their real estate licenses in 2020 and 2021, a 60% increase from the previous two years, according to New York Times analysis of National Association of Realtors data.

Others who work in this industry include independent real estate investors, who buy and lease property, and property managers, who maintain rental properties.

#2. Transportation and warehousing

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 3.2 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 11.7%
- Average revenue, 2020: $38,036

Supply chain issues created a need for more truck drivers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but more recently, demand has tanked. Many drivers opted to become independent owner-operators during the boom, a group that makes up about 15% of truckers, according to a Time report.

Now with higher diesel prices and less freight to be hauled, they're facing stiff competition for work, which is driving income down. Rideshare drivers are another facet of this industry, but they also face lower wages due to competition and algorithms determining how much to pay.

#1. Professional, scientific, and technical services

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- Number of nonemployer establishments in this industry: 3.7 million
- Share of all nonemployer establishments: 13.6%
- Average revenue, 2020: $48,509

Professional services workers used the Great Resignation as an opportunity to forge their own path. One in 5 lawyers quit working for a firm during 2021, according to Clio, and one-third of them started a solo practice.

Professional services workers used the pandemic as an opportunity to forge their own path. Jobs in this field include accounting, bookkeeping, consulting, computer services, advertising services, translators, interpreters, and photographers. 

Many opt to build a solo practice so they can work from home and have the flexibility to create their own hours. For many companies, photography, advertising, and translation services may be needed on a project or event-specific basis, so hiring managers may look prefer finding a contractor for a short-term project. 

Data reporting by Paxtyn Merten. Story editing by Jeff Inglis. Copy editing by Robert Wickwire. Photo selection by Ania Antecka.

This story originally appeared on Next Insurance and was produced and distributed in partnership with Stacker Studio.






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