US managers offering woeful lead on pensions

Mar 12 2007 by Nic Paton Print This Article

Getting more workers to sign up to company pension schemes has long been key to solving America's looming retirement crisis but, with research showing even high-earning bosses and managers reluctant to enrol, it's clearly an uphill struggle.

According to research by consultancy Watson Wyatt, the challenge that U.S employers face in getting workers to participate in company pensions, known as 401(k) plans, isn't limited to young and lower-paid employees.

In fact at many large companies older and high-earning workers also often fail to enrol in the prevalent retirement savings programme, the study of 300,000 workers at 32 large employers found.

The message this is sending to workers across the board is clear: we don't trust our company scheme to provide for our retirement.

At the bottom of the salary scale Watson Wyatt found that more than half of workers earning between $10,000 and $25,000 annually chose not to participate in 401(k) plans.

While this may not have been that surprising, the fact that nearly one out of 10 workers earning more than $100,000 annually also did not participate was more of a concern, it argued.

Overall, about 70 per cent of workers participated in 401(k) plans, a percentage that had held relatively steady for several years.

"Despite employers' ongoing efforts to educate workers on the need to save for retirement, the bottom line is that voluntary participation in these types of plans doesn't work well for everyone, even high earners," said Mark Warshawsky, director of retirement research at Watson Wyatt.

"It's one thing to know how much to save for retirement; it is quite another to do it," he added.

Participation could increase in the future as employers are encouraged automatically to enrol employees, a part of the country's Pension Protection Act, Watson Wyatt argued.

Some employers are already taking such steps and found, when such schemes were put in place, more than 90 per cent of employees participated.

Watson Wyatt also found that some of the scepticism among employees at all wage levels about enrolling may well be justified.

Employee participation in 401(k) plan did not guarantee a robust retirement fund, it concluded.

Even for those who participated, contribution rates tended to be low, especially among younger and lower-earning workers.

Workers earning between $10,000 and $25,000 annually contributed just 6.2 per cent of their salary to 401(k) plans, while workers earning at least $100,000 annually contribute almost 10 per cent of their salary.

Watson Wyatt's analysis also found that many workers who had been with their current employer for at least 20 years had not accumulated large account balances in their 401(k) plans.

Two out of three of such workers who earned $10,000 to $25,000 annually had accumulated less than one year's annual pay in their accounts.

Even in the $75,000 and higher pay category, about one out of four workers came up short of a year's pay.

"Clearly, many workers don't start saving soon enough, and even those who do may not be contributing adequate amounts," said Robyn Credico, national director of Watson Wyatt's defined contribution practice.

"The power of compound interest is often overstated, but failing to contribute to 401(k) and other retirement plans early in one's career exacts a heavy toll on savings 40 years later.

"Workers who start late will be forced to contribute significantly more to their 401(k)s to catch up, or may have to delay retirement or lower their economic expectations.

"They also may have to rely more heavily on other sources of income, such as other savings, Social Security and pensions," warned Credico.