TOTAL PLAN ASSETS/PARTICIPANTS:$4.6 billion/18,602 total for three plans

PARTICIPATION RATE: 100% in 403(b) base plan; 64% in 403(b) voluntary plan; 45.4% in voluntary 457(b) plan

AVERAGE DEFERRAL RATE: 10% for voluntary 403(b)

EMPLOYER CONTRIBUTION: For the base 403(b), Caltech’s automatic employer contribution varies based on an employee’s age, years of service and salary

What motivates employees to choose to learn more about their retirement plans and other benefits? Caltech gained insight about that last year, when the university made changes to its annual Science of Benefits workshop series that led employee attendance to more than double.

“We offered new topics, we launched the ‘Picture Your Financial Future’ campaign to raise awareness of the importance of retirement planning, and we targeted our communications and content to specific employee groups who needed to take action,” says Michelle Jaross, director, benefits and compensation at Caltech, a science and engineering-focused university in Pasadena, California.Also, adding the ability to access the workshops remotely via telecast at our Jet Propulsion Laboratory location increased the number of workshop participants from there by 177%.” Overall, attendance increased 142%, with 2,640 employees attending in 2016, vs. 1,092 in 2015.

The effort started when Caltech’s benefits staff did a data analysis of previous Science of Benefits workshop attendance. “We needed to focus on attracting participants who were not taking advantage of the program, such as graduate students, employees in the first two years of their careers and the Gen[eration] Y population,” says Elida Guillen, Caltech total rewards retirement supervisor. “So we planned new workshops that would attract these groups.”

Ideas from previous attendees also led Caltech to add new workshop topics, Guillen says. “Based on their feedback, we found that participants wanted more information to help them plan for retirement,” she says. “In particular, they asked for more information about Caltech’s retiree health-care plans, Social Security, online tools and on-demand workshops.” The university provides a 403(b) base plan and offers voluntary 403(b) and 457(b) plans.

Caltech and its recordkeeper, TIAA, met weekly to plan workshops as well as develop the marketing plan and materials for 2016’s Science of Benefits. “We worked together on strategy, and TIAA created promotional materials,” Guillen says.  

The result was the “Picture Your Financial Future” campaign, which Caltech rolled out during the employer’s annual open-enrollment benefits fair in October 2015. The campaign—with an eye toward younger and newer employees—aimed to encourage workshop attendance and motivate participants to take action in saving for their retirement. It included a special workshop focused on explaining the basics of Caltech’s retirement programs.

The 2016 workshop series took place between February and September. New sessions included those on integrating health-care costs into retirement planning, Social Security, and estate planning. The Social Security event had the largest turnout of any Science of Benefits event ever, with 618 employees attending.

The 2016 event also helped motivate more Caltech employees to talk one-on-one with a TIAA financial adviser, which in turn helped increase participation, Jaross says. Caltech employees had 1,344 individual financial consultations with TIAA advisers last year, continuing an upward trend. “As of June 2016, one in five of our employees had received financial advice from TIAA in the past three years,” she says.

Also, participation rates in the 403(b) voluntary plan increased at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory location from 65.2% in 2015 to 68.7% in 2016, and at the main campus from 35.8% in 2015 to 39.6% in 2016. Judy Ward

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