KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- At NCM Associates in Overland Park, Kan., employees are getting a gift that will keep on giving: an infusion into their nest eggs.

More than half of the professional services company's 92 employees have been on the job long enough to be fully vested in the company's employee stock ownership plan, and they're expecting a contribution worth 10 percent to 13 percent of their total annual compensation.

Their ESOP is "a pretty good incentive to hang around and contribute to the company's future," said Nikki Lear, an information technology worker who has worked there for 33 years.

Sluggish hiring markets always encourage workers to stay put because there aren't many available options. But surveys show that up to three-fourths of employees are interested in different opportunities and are at least passively looking for new jobs.

But research shows that workers who have financial skin in the game have an extra incentive to stay on the job.

For 13 million employees in 11,300 U.S. companies, that "skin" is company ownership through an ESOP.

Advocates for employee ownership plans say that, assuming the company stays profitable, benefits don't go solely to the worker.

To Penny Correa, an administrative assistant at NCM, "The ESOP is a great motivator within the company. ... You take extra pride in your company as well as work harder."

In theory and in practice, that generally translates into a better bottom line.

The National Center for Employee Ownership believes about 25 million employees participate in some kind of company ownership plan, including profit-sharing, gain-sharing or 401(k) retirement plans that are heavily invested in their employers' stock.

Sign up for our new business newsletter

We're starting a weekly newsletter about the business stories that are shaping Charleston and South Carolina. Get ahead with us - it's free.

Workplace consultants say employee ownership and profit-sharing are no-brainers for employers who wish their workers "would think like owners."

"I'm an advocate," said Thomas Peebles, a Salina, Kan., attorney who specializes in helping companies follow ESOP regulations. "But you have to make the skin in the game mean something."

When done right, workers may feel like Jeff Lampton, an NCM employee, says he does: "I don't work for NCM. I work with my associates."

A Rutgers University study, done in 2000 but still cited in support of ESOPs, found that ESOP companies grew 2.3 percent to 2.4 percent faster after setting up their ESOP than would have been expected without it.