Communicating Retirement Benefits to Five Generations of Workers

The University of Pittsburgh has found stories from peers resonate well with every employee group.

Similar to those of other large employers with a growing number of both young and long-tenured employees, the University of Pittsburgh’s retirement program must meet the needs of five generations of workers.

Cheryl Johnson, vice chancellor of human resources, says the University of Pittsburgh benefits tremendously from having a diverse workforce from the age and cultural perspective. But it’s also true that having such a diverse workplace means the leadership team in charge of benefits and compensation must work hard to understand the needs and wants of all of Pitt’s employees.

“In recent years, we have bisected the 25,000-plus staff and faculty in our DC program in news ways,” Johnson says. “One interesting discovery we have made is that we have five generations in our participant base, from Generation Z to traditionalists. This fact has driven our efforts to make plan communications more relevant and targeted.”  

As Johnson explains, until recently, the way Pitt approached its retirement program was to really emphasize the retirement angle in most communications and outreach. The leadership team did not think as much about how the plan would be viewed and understood by younger workers, for example, or about how the plan could speak to these people in terms of helping their more immediate financial wellness needs.

“That was not a wrong approach, necessarily, but we realized that it was important to put an additional emphasis on what the financial needs are for Gen Z, the Millennials and even Generation X,” Johnson says. “Working with TIAA, we have made great strides and we have taken strong steps to ensure that our program is not underappreciated by either younger or older workers.”

According to Nichole Dwyer, Pitt’s director of communications for human resources, the retirement program now regularly circulates messaging that will resonate with different participants depending on their stage in the savings lifecycle—and it has embraced automatic enrollment features. As a result of recent initiatives, overall retirement plan contributions increased by more than 14%, the 403(b) plan participation rate went from 63% to 70%, and faculty and staff booked more than 750 one-on-one sessions with financial consultants, a 54% increase.

Recently, Pitt ran a campaign called “Write Your Own Financial Story,” which is fully detailed in the organization’s 2019 PLANSPONSOR Retirement Plan Sponsor of the Year award profile. Supplementing the campaign were more than 30 live events, including in-person and digital sessions. One was a campus visit by TIAA President and CEO Roger Ferguson, for a full day of talks and presentations with different university groups. The focus of all of our events was on the importance of retirement savings, best practices and, especially, the “Write Your Own Financial Story.”

In support of the theme, the school enhanced its office of human resources website. The site now includes simple explanations of recent retirement program changes, plus a “Their Financial Story” section with real-life examples of how Pitt employees are planning for their financial future. The new section allowed Pitt to present plan enhancements as more about the individuals they were affecting, as opposed to just a list of updates.

To gather the stories, the school asked participants to answer questions about their passions, financial goals and hopes for retirement; then it posted some of the responses along with pictures of those employees. Dwyer notes that the campaign was promoted through various social media channels and the related workshops were tailored to resonate with the particular phase of the savings lifecycle that different people are in. So, for example, Millennials would hear more about debt reduction and balancing short- and long-term financial goals. Those workers three or five years out from retirement, on the other hand, would hear more about the retirement transition and planning for a retirement paycheck.

“Knowing our plan is very generous, we also wanted to make that fact known to everyone in the organization,” Dwyer says. “Through our communications, we made sure they understood that we match people at 150% once they are vested. So if you are contributing 8% on your own, that means you are getting a 20% contribution on net into the plan. This is a very strong benefit and to not take advantage of it is to leave significant money on the table. We made sure that message was shared with everyone, to great effect.”

According to Johnson, certain individual participants in Pitt’s retirement program have had a strong influence when it comes to getting their peers to contribute fully.

“We have a beautiful story of a women who has been a custodian for us for a long time. She retired a few months ago, and she made it a goal of hers to tell everyone how happy she was to see her retirement replacement income across Social Security and the defined contribution plans,” Johnson says. “She felt that she was really in a good spot, and we saw a big impact on others just from her positive testimony alone. The anecdotes and advocacy from the staff have a big impact and should be encouraged.”

Notably, Pitt’s improvements have come not only through communications. “We have embraced automatic enrollment, for example, because we know we need to make it hard for people to make sub-optimal choices,” Johnson says. “We communicate that we want people to start saving at 8% when they walk in the door, because they won’t miss money from the paycheck that they never saw to begin with. Our counselors help younger employees find the right balance between paying down debt and investing for the future. It can be an individualized decision and so the one-on-one guidance is quite helpful.”

Dwyer notes that Pitt looks to TIAA for help, but the organization also crafts much of the participant messaging in-house.

“We know this is important work to do. In our last campaign, we did interviews of participants on campus across generations, race, sexual orientation, etc. We asked different groups about their passions for life and their goals for retirement, and we used this to tailor our messaging across the board,” Dwyer explains. “The answers were sometimes surprising, I should add. These stories help people understand that others are facing similar challenges.”

Dwyer and Johnson note that another important aspect to consider is that there are different levels of comfort with financial topics across the workforce. Pitt, like other large employers, has some employees who are familiar with investing and some who are not. And there are different preferences for how much advice people want to get and how much control they want when it comes to self-directing their investments.

“With an initiative of this magnitude, we especially wish to acknowledge our appreciation of the leadership and support provided by our chancellor, Patrick Gallagher,” Johnson adds. “In our case, we have a retirement oversight committee that is a cross-functional group of men and women who meet on a quarterly basis. It has been wonderful to work with this group and to gather the different perspectives. It was a refreshing experience to use the cross-functional input and it allowed us to really stretch our thinking about the goals of financial literacy and wellness fitting into the retirement program.”