It has been five years since the fall of Lehman Brothers and the start of the Great Recession, but economic growth is still stuck. Despite some progress in 2010 and 2011, not much changed in 2012. There still isn’t enough demand to fuel increased economic growth. Yet some companies are forging ahead, continuing a strategy of cautious investments in staff, capital, and R&D along with a focus on controlling expenses and managing the balance sheet.

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These factors all affect employment across the industry. Overall job gains in the economic recovery mostly have been found in lower-paying positions, often attached to part-time hours. According to The Wall Street Journal, U.S. GDP growth for the first quarter of 2013 was revised downward to 1.8%. Most consumers aren’t earning enough to cover the costs of health care, education, and retirement, let alone discretionary income for consumer goods and services.

Lower-paying jobs with no benefits have replaced well-paying jobs with benefits, doing no good for the health of the economy. These lower-wage jobs and underemployment aren’t stimulating much demand, so companies have little incentive to go out and hire more workers. Many companies also aren’t offering raises to their current personnel, since they know those employees won’t be leaving for other jobs, adding to the lack of spending that’s ultimately hurting the economy.

So, which companies are doing well enough to rise above the stagnant economic tide? We based our list of the Top 50 Employers in Electronic Design on a formula using public financial data with bonus points awarded using the results of our annual Electronic Design Reader Profile Survey.

By The Numbers

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more Americans are working part-time involuntarily.  These part-timers now number more than 8.2 million, which is an increase of 322,000 workers from May and almost double the number this time five years ago. Also, a July National Employment Law Project (NELP) study concluded that real median hourly wages declined by 2.8% averaged across all occupations from 2009 to 2012.

This 2.8% decline is astounding, since productivity has increased by 4.5% over the same period. Workers are producing more goods and services per hour but earning less than they were when the recovery began! According to CNN Money, U.S. median income fell to $50,054 in 2011, the most recent full year in which data is available. That’s down 8.1% since 2007, just before the great recession started. Overall, median income has fallen 8.9% from its peak in 1999.

Meanwhile, the middle class is shrinking, as many Americans slide down the economic ladder, according to The Washington Post. During the recovery, job gains have been concentrated in lower-wage occupations, which grew nearly three times as quickly as middle-wage and higher-wage occupations, according to another NELP study. State and federal governments, for example, have cut 835,000 jobs over the past four years—many of them middle-income positions, according to The Huffington Post.

Job growth projections by the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the healthcare, social assistance, and retail sectors are among the areas expected to add the most jobs by 2020—all industries with jobs that tend to have meager pay and poor working conditions. A lot of these positions will pay the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, the inflation-adjusted value of which has declined by more than 30% since the 1960s.

The official unemployment rate is 7.6%, but the real number is actually about twice that. A statistic known as the U-6 figure includes the unemployed, plus those “marginally attached” to the labor force (they want a job but have largely given up looking), plus those working part-time but who want a full-time job. The U-6 number for June 2013 was a resounding 14.3%, up half a percentage point from May. Fewer working-age Americans are working than at any time in the past 30 years. The employment-to-population ratio is 58.7% according to the Department of Labor, a drop from 63% five years ago, before the recession hit.

However, corporate profits as a percentage of GDP are now at an all-time high, which means that workers’ wages as a percentage of the economy have hit an all-time low. Corporations are now paying employees less than they ever have as a share of GDP. Companies aren’t seeing viable opportunities to use cash for investment, hiring, pay raises, or even rewarding shareholders, so it is accumulating on the balance sheet.

Union wages are a rare commodity as well. In 2012, the median salary of unionized workers was about $49,000, compared to $39,000 for their non-union counterparts, according to PBS Frontline. Fewer workers are earning union salaries, though. Thirty years ago, one in five U.S. workers was a union member. Today, it’s about one in 10.

Education costs are becoming prohibitive too. According to an October 2012 Hamilton Project study, a college education costs 50% morethan it did 30 years ago. Public colleges and universities are cheaper, but not cheap enough. As states cut funding, the cost of attending a four-year public institution has risen by 5.2% each year of the last decade, according to Reuters, and student loan debt in the U.S. now exceeds $1 trillion. Upon graduating, debt-saddled students face youth unemployment of around 16%. Although degrees are extremely expensive, they have become necessary to get a foot in the door for a decent job.

What’s Next?

The IMF’s July 2013 update of its World Economic Outlookcut the forecast for 2013 global growth to slightly above 3%, matching the 2012 forecast. Caterpillar Inc., twelfth on our list, is a bellwether for broader economic growth. Its ties to infrastructure, its global footprint, and its exposure to China give it a strong view as to how global growth will unfold. CAT's recent economic outlook expects U.S. growth of around 2% for all of 2013, which won’t have much impact on unemployment or inflation. As a result, the Fed is likely to keep rates near zero for a fifth straight year.

Housing starts are a rare bright spot. After posting an average annual rate of 915,000 over the first half of the year, the strongest since 2008, starts are set to improve further. Sales of new homes hit their highest rate in five years according to the Census Bureau.

China’s economy will grow around 7.5% this year, with industrial production set to rise by around 9%. That’s slower than the pace seen early in the recovery, but it should still lead to more construction and commodity use. Factory output slowed in China, however. HSBC’s Chinese Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index dropped to 47.7, an 11-month low. It was down from a final result of 48.2 for June, with any reading below 50 indicating a contraction in activity

According to CAT's earnings release, recovery from the financial crisis in 2009 has been very slow by historic standards. Governments and central banks have consistently overestimated inflation problems and underestimated the need for economic growth. The result has been continued high unemployment.

The Eurozone just completed its seventh quarter of recession, resulting in both the lowest construction and highest unemployment in the last 20 years. The Eurozone economy is weak, and CAT believes economic policies are insufficient to support improvements. The risk of a disruptive economic crisis, one that would impact growth in other countries, remains.

A closer look at the 98 companies we examined to determine our Top 50 reveals some important trends. In almost all of the criteria we used, we saw a decline in performance versus last year’s results. Given the many other challenges in the economy, these companies would do well merely to replicate fiscal 2013’s results.

There are no more major downsizing opportunities. Costs are cut to the bone. Debt continues to be reduced. Sales are growing, but at the expense of margins. And, companies are doing what they can to continue their R&D investments. Until the consumer is in a better position with discretionary income to increase demand once again, global GDP will continue to merely sputter along. Five companies have shown extraordinary success despite these challenges, though, leaping up dozens of places on our list between 2012 and this year.

Download the 2013 Top 50 Employers list
Includes a full 13 page article that is not featured anywhere else.

Quick-View: View the Top 10 Company Gallery