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NASHVILLE—How can employers attract, retain, and “gracefully exit” employees? EBRI head Harry Conaway, Fidelity Vice President Jeanne Thompson, and American Retirement Association Communications chief Nevin Adams weighed in at the NAPA 401(k) Summit.

Here is where employers are in 2016–Harry Conaway started it off by “setting the table”:

  • Boomers are aging and beginning to retire, though not as fast as some employers might want.

  • Millennials are now the largest workforce.

  • Salaries are flat.

  • The Great Recession and other challenges are background items.

  • There’s a move to more contractors and gig workers.

  • There’s a shift from DB to DC plans.

  • Workers are facing new work issues such as financial stress, higher credit card debt, higher student loan debt, and are suffering, coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), from a lack of sleep as well.

To help employers, new products and services are created weekly. And as many pitches for these new products. It almost requires a Consumer Reports of benefits solutions to sort through all of them. EBRI trustees did briefly wonder if they should do this, Conaway said. “They didn’t do it, but it’s an opportunity.”

“Don’t be too attracted to all these shiny objects. It’s taking you away from your business and focusing on the new products and services.” Instead, as you try to sort through the market noise, focus on these four things:

  1. What you need to do to achieve success

  2. What are current and future workforce needs

  3. Who are your current workers

  4. Who should be your future workers

And the task of advisors? “To sort through the noise to help employers.”

Employers must not assume, he said. “Don’t assume: that things are going well, that what worked yesterday worked as well as you thought it did, that what worked yesterday will work tomorrow, that things will remain the same or change will come slowly, that workers in any group are the same, that general claims about comp or benefit approaches will have the desired affect for your workers, that what works for one employee will work for all.”

“Be specific about what’s important to you as an employer. Ask questions: what’s working, what’s not, where’s the pain, do all workers need to be ambitious? Do they need to be career oriented? Should you try to meet the needs and wants of your key workers?

“Zero base your programs—what’s the comp you need to pay, what can you afford to pay? What justifies providing some portion of that total comp in another form, such as tax benefits, group purchasing.”

He also reminded the audience not to overlook HR and non comp/benefit drivers: recognition, stress reduction, flexibility, creativity, job challenges. These less tangible features can be used to attract and retain employees as well.

“Look at the gig economy. These are workers who want flexibility and control. That learning you can apply to your employees, to help their appreciation and desire to stay. Though you don’t want to be too good and make them reluctant to leave later on.”

To that end, use benefits in a strategic way, he said:

  • Use the long-term, relatively stable HR comp and benefits programs for broad groups of workers.

  • Use specific HR comp and benefit items linked to specific roles or employees.

For example, he said, “You might create a general retirement program that has an effect on the larger workforce—say a desire to leave or a desire to stay—then you have to identify the employees you want to behave contrary to the general broad program.”

Do you take what employees say they want into consideration? Not necessarily. “HR is dying for ways to measure ROI. They’re becoming much more skeptical of workers saying they want things. It doesn’t translate into more productivity necessarily. Any advisor of an employer needs to take more of an ROI view. Which is harder with the new benefits such as wellness.”

He asked the audience, a roomful of between 1000 to 1700 people, to raise their hands if they were doing financial wellness programs for clients. At least two thirds of the audience raised their hands.

When asked “Who sees employers understanding their workforce?” as they create and make decisions about these wellness plans, no hands went up.

Employers need to be asking these questions, Conaway said. And if not employers? “Maybe the advisor has to do the collection and the analysis, depending on the employer. I think it’s essential. It sets some general parameters as to what’s likely to work or not work for employees.”

An important point Conaway stressed is the importance of worker choice. “The millennials want flexibility and choice, but too much choice is not necessarily the answer.” With too many choices, a program becomes overly personalized. “It can be a pseudo marketplace and you eliminate some of the group purchasing and cost benefits.”

Millennials, especially, like the notion of researching, having choices, and getting recommendations, he said. “That’s what choice architecture is about these days—helping them make better choices.”

You can offer choices but it’s not always either/or, he said. “You could marry a student debt repayment program with an education assistance program. You can shift transportation assistance to paying workers more to live near the home office.”

Personalization of benefits is a growing trend, said Fidelity’s Jeanne Thompson. Advisors can help employers dig a little deeper, she said. “Use data and analysis. Just as Amazon uses data, so we should in the financial space.”

She went on to talk about the shift from defined benefit plans to defined contribution plans: “It’s an old problem that needs new strategies.”

Part of that strategy involves crunching new numbers and educating employers about them. Displaying a new “retirement map” Fidelity created, she covered some age-based milestones that employers need to be aware of. For example, at age 30, an employee should be saving 1X his or her income at that point in time. At age 50, it’s 6X their income. She said as a rule of thumb, employees should spend 50 percent of income on essential expenses, 15 percent on retirement saving, and 5 percent on short term saving.

Retiring workers is a goal. But what drives an employee’s decision to retire?

Fidelity worked with a partner to survey 12,000 people, of which 9500 were pre-retirees. What they found, Thompson said, were five factors influencing an individual’s decision to retire:

  1. Financial: assets, debt, cost of health care

  2. Health: stress, physical stamina, mental sharpness

  3. Family: grandchildren, a partner to take care of

  4. Lifestyle: importance of leisure, whether employees find meaning and identity through work or not, and their relationships at work

Forty-four percent said financial was their top consideration to retire, Thompson said. That is, they felt they had the wherewithal financially to retire. The other 56 percent ranked something else they consider when retiring.

Fidelity identified three phases pre-retirees go through before retirement. These phases are not necessarily age based, as some 60 year olds have college-aged children and some 40 year olds have grandchildren. Still, they’re useful for planning, she said. The phases correspond to conquering a mountain (think Everest):

  1. Climbing: 10 plus years from retirement. They’re happy with job, their finances outweigh all factors. They have debt, they have dependents. You wouldn’t see someone quit because they had a grandchild. In this phase the financial factors outweigh all factors.

  2. Base camp: 2 to 9 years from retirement. Things are clearer. They’re reducing debt. They’re not necessarily looking for new opportunities. Their health may be waning but is manageable.

  3. Summit: 2 years out from retirement. No financial dependents. Reduced debt. They aren’t updating their resume. This is where they might up and quit if they had a bad day or bad weather or other factors.

Fidelity figured out what employees in each phase need as far as help:

  1. Climbing: want to create financial plan, want to work part time with benefits, needs to understand Social Security.

  2. Base camp: want a financial plan, want to understand health care in retirement, what retirement options are there, more about Social Security.

  3. Summit: “A big barrier to exiting the workforce is a lack of comfort with the retirement benefits accrued,” Thompson said. “If they do have a significant balance, you can help them understand the issues affecting their retirement and help them feel more comfortable retiring.”

The challenge is to engage with people in whatever phase they’re in, Thompson said. “You have to ask about more than finances. It’s going a little deeper.”