SURVEY SAYS: Do You Have Regular Education Meetings?

July 7, 2005 (PLANSPONSOR.com) - One of the more effective ways to help participants better understand their retirement savings program is to offer in-person meetings to explain the program, the investment options, etc. This week, we asked readers how often retirement plan education meetings (not enrollment sessions) were held for current workers.

An impressive 37.5% of this week’s respondents said they held such meetings on an annual basis, while 25% did so (or tried to) quarterly.   Roughly 6% offered such sessions on a semi-annual frequency, while another 3% did so more frequently than quarterly (these tended to be informal lunchtime discussions).

While every workplace (and workforce) has its own challenges, one respondent who offered monthly sessions noted, “…they are generally well attended, and we have been providing education meetings for over 15 years.”   A surprisingly large number were looking to increase the frequency of those meetings.   One noted, “We are currently offering education meetings quarterly but are considering doing them more often.” 

One provider, who said they tried to conduct annual meetings noted that “Everybody around here is terrified that they might say something that might be construed as “investment advice” and get sued, so the “education” consists mostly of repeating the website address over and over until everybody gets bored and leaves the room.”   A number of plan sponsors echoed that frustration, including one who said, “We always schedule a separate investment education training module for other participants at this time which are well attended. Recently, we substituted one-on-one sessions with the XYZ   trainer rather than a training module. All of the trainer’s available time was booked for these sessions. Now if only she could give advice . . .”   Or, as another observed, “We hold education meetings ever year to year and a half depending on when we can get the provider out here without charging us a lot of money.”

Holding the meetings was one thing, getting people to attend was another.   One noted, “We try to hold two meetings per year.   Generally, attendance used to be poor.   If I provide muffins or cookies, the attendance rate goes up.   It’s amazing that employees are more interested in eating than planning for their retirement.”  

Only about 10% of those who currently sponsor such meetings make them mandatory – and when they aren’t mandatory, attendance rates tend to average about 10%, according to this week’s responses.   That low rate of attendance tended to cut both ways in terms of setting the pace for the future.   One noted that “We have an in person meeting once a year.   It became mandatory last year after having low attendance in previous years.”   But another respondent noted, “We hold these meetings very irregularly because we have such low attendance.” 

Of course, there was “mandatory”, and then there were situations like this one:   “We make it mandatory without calling it “mandatory”.   If ya’ know what I mean.”   Another noted, “Ours are annual – not mandatory.   However, our office is rated for participation in these meetings, so you really need to make them mandatory if you want your office to look good!”

One plan sponsor who does not offer such meetings per se noted, “We do have a plan representative on site from our provider who is available to meet with people individually.   We find that his time is usually well occupied in traveling to the employees or meeting in his office.   Being in health care with the bulk of our employees doing direct patient care, it is extremely challenging to relieve them from their duties to attend meetings.”

Still another noted, “We started an education focus a year ago when we realized that the plan had changed so much that people had plan rules in their head from YEARS ago.   To review basic plan features (when you can contribute, how much, matching calculation, matching formula, etc) we did them as part of regularly scheduled staff meetings (mandatory).   Now we’re in phase 2 as we make the rounds to each office to hold optional meetings that cover asset allocation and diversification (to help with the 70 funds we offer).   With the good chance that we’ll be adding the Roth feature to our 401(k) in January, I don’t see any relief in sight to my perpetual education effort.   I’m asking for a set of pom-poms in my performance review this year.”

Still, roughly 28% either offered no such education – or did so infrequently as to be considered “none.”   As one noted, “We offer employee meetings for retirement education every two to three years.   Just long enough in between for the employees to forget everything they learned the last time.”   Another noted, “I remember once, maybe twice, in my nine years hearing of a meeting for existing participants.   It’s awful.   We have poor participation also.”   Some of the worst, ironically enough were – well, let’s let the readers speak; “4 years.   No meetings.   And we’re a “benefits consulting” firm.   It just OOZES irony…no?   Another said “How often do we do participant education?   Never. We’re a TPA firm so it’s assumed that, being retirement professionals, we already know everything anyway.”  

But this week’s Editor’s Choice goes to the reader who observed, “Our company offers help anytime you need it through an 800- number, but they don’t give any information that can’t be read on the benefits web site…and that advice is worth every penny participants pay for it.” 

Thanks to everyone who participated in our survey!

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