Whether a distant dream or just around the bend, retirement benefits hold significant sway with employees making decisions about where to work and for how long. In fact, a 2011 Mercer What’s Working survey of 30,000 workers found that, among American and Canadian employees, retirement plans placed second only to base pay among the most important employee value proposition elements.
Despite this emphasis, modern-day employees are notoriously poor at following through with retirement savings. Jack VanDerhei, research director of the Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) in Washington D.C. notes, “Only 13 percent of workers now say they’re very confident about retirement,” an all-time low in 21 years of the institute’s Retirement Confidence Survey. What’s more, well over a quarter—29 percent—of workers surveyed said they have savings of less than $1,000.
Still, the expense and administrative burden often appear unaffordable to small business owners. Yet, these tangible costs should be weighed against the intangible benefits that drive employee satisfaction and performance. For example, Met Life’s 9th Annual Study of Employee Benefit Trends found a strong correlation between satisfaction with retirement benefits and job loyalty. In that survey, more than three out of four employees who were happy with their employer’s retirement plan also reported being satisfied with their job.
“We provide medical and retirement benefits, though we are not obligated to, in order to attract and retain good employees,” explains Jodi Teti, small business owner of Blueprint LSAT Preparation, headquartered in Los Angeles, California. Small business owners like Teti say they recognize that to stay competitive and desirable, it’s time to revisit their employees’ retirement benefits. Below, three retirement specialists contribute their insights about the types of retirement benefits that are most desirable to small business employees today.
What employees want most: matching contributions, risk choices, and quick results
“Adequate investment choices and reasonable investment returns for an appropriate level of risk are important aspects employees want in their plans,” says Wes Rommerskirchen of Benefit Plans Plus, LLC, in St. Louis, Missouri. “Employees also look for a healthy employer contribution to assist them in reaching their retirement goals,” he says.
Peter Macaluso, Vice President of FM International Services in Melville, New York, concurs. When it comes to employee satisfaction and retirement benefits, he finds from his experience that “employer contributions affect employee satisfaction the most.”
What does this look like for a small business?
“Initially, we offered a scaled vesting period,” says Teti, whose company originally planned to match 100-percent of contributions for employees after six years of employment. “However, in today's fluid employment environment, we found that employees simply weren’t contributing under that rubric,” she says.
To counter this trend, her company changed its policy so that employees could realize their benefits more quickly. “After an employee's first year of employment, we match their retirement contribution up to three percent; we’re 100 percent vested after the initial year,” she says, adding, “the total number of contributions tripled since we instituted the new policy.”
Traditional 401(k) and profit sharing
With a 401(k) plan, employees contribute part of their pay into a plan sponsored by their employer. Many 401(k) plans provide for employer matching and profit sharing, which are employer contributions not taxed by the federal dovernment or by most state governments until distributed. The annual employer contribution is discretionary.
FM International offers its employees a three-percent profit-sharing contribution, which is what they recommend to their customers and clients. Profit sharing permits employers to make large contributions for employees, up to the lesser amount of 100 percent of compensation or $49,000. Employers can deduct amounts that do not exceed 25 percent of aggregate compensation for all participants. If offered, profit sharing must include all employees at least 21 years of age who worked at least 1,000 hours in a previous year.
Visit the Department of Labor’s website, Choosing a Retirement Solution for Your Small Business for more information.
Offer automatic enrollment and target-date funds
Recently hired participants in 401(k) plans, particularly those under 30, are more likely to want target-date funds (TDFs), according to an analysis by EBRI. TDFs are usually mutual funds that have a portfolio mix that becomes more conservative as retirement approaches. Small business owners should consider plans that offer TDFs for workers who want more control about the risk and return of their retirement investment portfolio. Risk-averse or conservative plans find a lower yield acceptable, whereas more risk is required when pursuing a higher yield.
The Pension Protection Act of 2006 contained provisions designed to encourage 401(k) plan sponsors to automatically enroll their workers in the plan to boost retirement savings and TDFs are often used as a default investment for workers who are auto-enrolled.
Adding a cash balance plan – the best of both worlds?
Although still quite popular in the public sector, the old-fashioned pension (or standard defined benefit) plan is out of reach for many small business owners and has been on the decline for three decades in the private sector, according to EBRI. However, cash balance plans are hybrid plans that combine some aspects of a traditional pension plan with those of a defined contribution plan (401(k)/profit sharing).
“Business owners that have the cash flows to support an additional employer contribution may want to consider installing a cash balance plan alongside their existing 401(k)/profit sharing plan,” says Rommerskirchen. “Using a cash balance plan in conjunction with their properly-designed 40(1)k/profit sharing plan could allow the business owner to contribute substantially more towards retirement than just a traditional 401(k) plan would allow,” he adds.
A cash balance plan defines the promised benefit in terms of a stated account balance, yet fluctuations in the value of the plan’s investments do not directly affect the benefit amounts promised to participants. Another advantage: Benefits of cash balance plans are protected by federal insurance provided through the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation.
Simplified Employee Pension (SEP), Payroll Deduction IRA or the simple IRA plan
Many small businesses that want to help their employees with retirement turn to Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), such as the Simplified Employee Pension (SEP). With a SEP, employers set up an Individual Retirement Account (IRA) for themselves and each employee, with the employer contributing the same percentage of pay for each employee, up to 25 percent of their salary (or $49,000, whichever is less).
The Simple IRA plan allows contributions by both the employer and the employee, whereas the Payroll Deduction IRA is funded by employee contributions without participation from the employer.
Providing retirement and investment education opportunities for employees
Year after year, employees surveyed by EBRI in the Retirement Confidence Survey continue to rank private employers as their most trusted institution, positioning small business owners in the role of guiding and providing for their own and their employees’ retirement savings.
“As far as sweetening the benefits, it is quite difficult for micro-companies and small businesses under 200 employees,” says Marcia Mantell, President of Mantell Retirement Consulting in Needham, Massachusetts. However, there are other things employers can do to help their employees prepare for retirement, she explains.
For companies who want to help their employees right now, but who aren’t yet ready financially to add employer contributions to a retirement plan, Mantell suggests creating non-monetary benefits for employees. Educational opportunities such as lunch-and-learn or hosted seminars about investing for retirement and retirement readiness, combined with in-house training for using online retirement preparation tools, will help employees gain a realistic view of retirement financial needs.
Don’t go it alone
“One of the most common areas overlooked in a retirement plan is the selection of an appropriate investment professional to advise the business owner,” says Rommerskirchen. With many small business owners wearing multiple hats, it’s difficult to stay on top of retirement benefit changes. Therefore it’s important to know exactly what services the financial advisor is going to provide for the plan, and how often you will meet with the financial advisor to review issues. You’ll also want to know how often the plan’s financial advisor will meet with your employees and how much experience he or she has, Rommerskirchenk recommends.