What Do Retirement Benefits Really Cost Participants?

It varies by industry, but trends have emerged

401k, cost, retirement, Defined contributionCompared with other benefits, 401k cost isn't looking bad.

The cost of providing retirement plan benefits, including 401ks, varies greatly. Not exactly news to experienced 401k advisors, but Willis Towers Watson puts the numbers in stark relief.

The company’s analysis, titled “Shifts in benefit allocations among U.S. employers,” found total benefit cost, which includes defined benefit (DB), defined contribution (DC) and post-retirement medical programs (PRM), to be industry-specific.

For example, retirement benefits averaged 12 percent of pay in the oil, gas and electric compared with roughly 5.5 percent of pay in the healthcare, high-tech, general services and retail industries.

The analysis noted utility, energy and natural resource companies, which comprise the OG&E sector, have some of the highest pension sponsorship rates.

Utility companies are typically heavily unionized and generally prefer to maintain a consistent retirement structure for both union and non-union workers. Moreover, many jobs at OG&E companies are physically demanding, and DB plans can help provide flexibility for employees regarding when they retire.

“Industry is playing a significant role in how employers have been re-allocating their dollars for employee benefits,” Debby Moorman, senior consultant, Willis Towers Watson, said in a statement. “Employers aren’t spending as much on retirement benefits as in previous years. In fact, employers are now spending a much higher percentage of pay on health care benefits compared with 15 years ago. By recognizing the talent needs for their respective industries, employers can better position a total benefit package that helps attract and retain workers with the right skills.”

Overall employer-provided benefit cost as a percentage of pay is also higher than average in the finance and manufacturing sectors. The finance sector includes insurance companies, which have high DB sponsorship rates, although banks and other finance companies have been less likely to offer DB plans to new hires since the 2008 financial crisis.

While many manufacturing companies shifted from DB to DC plans over the last decade and reduced their overall spend on retirement benefits, most of them enhanced their DC contributions after closing or freezing the DB plan and thus provide a relatively generous, though lower, retirement benefit to newly hired workers today.

Across all industries, employer-provided retirement benefits were 6.8 percent of pay, 70 percent less than and healthcare costs, which averaged 11.5 percent of pay.

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