As the stock market swoons and the economy slows, employers are boosting efforts to improve financial literacy among workers.
And demand from anxious employees is surging as they take a bigger role in their own retirement planning.
At WakeMed in Raleigh, attendance is up at classes such as Secure your Future and Retirement Strategies for Women.
SAS Institute in Cary is seeing about twice as many participants this year for seminars on budgeting, insurance, taxes and more.
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IBM's MoneySmart coaches are assisting thousands with financial planning needs, from 401(k) investments to debt management.
And Pepsi Bottling Ventures in Raleigh soon will start a Financial Peace seminar series based on the work of financial guru Dave Ramsey.
“It's a matter of being committed to the total health and well-being of your employees,” said Claire Niver, vice president of human resources for Pepsi Bottling. “We know people struggle with money. We know it stresses them out and makes them less productive.
“We believe when people come to work, they need to be as healthy as possible – that's physical, mental and financial,” she added. “Anything that distracts your employees pulls them away from you.”
Financial education started gaining traction as employers began phasing out traditional pension plans in favor of 401(k) plans that require more ownership and effort by workers. In the past three decades, the percentage of private-sector workers that participate in only a pension plan has dropped below 10 percent. The Employee Benefit Research Institute reports that nearly two-thirds were enrolled in a 401(k)-type defined contribution plan in 2005, the latest figures available.
But many employers have been reluctant to provide much comprehensive financial advice or assistance for workers. There was the added cost, an unwillingness to meddle in workers' personal affairs and, in some cases, fear of liability if investments soured.
The recent stock market slump, coupled with surging prices that are putting more strain on household budgets, is fueling interest in sophisticated and personalized financial services.
“We're putting these decisions in the hands of our employees,” said Jeanene Martin, senior vice president of human resources at WakeMed, the Raleigh hospital system. “The responsible thing to do is to give them the resources to make good decisions.”
WakeMed has four full-time financial advisers on site to answer questions and teach seminars for its more than 7,000 employees in Raleigh and Cary.
IBM offers free training
IBM started its MoneySmart program last year, partly in anticipation of freezing its pension fund in January and shifting workers to 401(k) plans. The program, which IBM expects will cost $50 million over five years, provides seminars, online planning and one-on-one financial help, all free for employees.
The technology company, which employs about 11,000 at its Research Triangle Park campus, sees the program as a way to boost productivity and retention, said Kari Barbar, IBM's vice president of workforce and diversity programs.
The program has about 15,000 workers engaged in one-on-one coaching and is fielding about 4,500 calls a month.
Peter Orton, a media designer in IBM's Center for Advanced Learning, consulted with a MoneySmart coach recently as his wife prepared to retire and begin collecting Social Security benefits.
“They didn't say, ‘We know the answers,' but they found us some experts who knew the answers,” said Orton, who lives in Hillsborough. “I'm a pretty critical guy when it comes to services, but I'm really hot on” the program.
There are limits to how much help a company-sponsored seminar can provide. In some cases, workers might require a fee-based adviser for issues such as how to allocate retirement fund assets.
But in most cases, employers are trying to offer at least a foundation of education, and then give referrals and recommendations for additional help.
“We provide answers so employees can be better prepared,” said Mark Cowell, the financial education resource consultant for SAS. “With what's happening with banks, Wall Street, people are worried.”
The software company has its own experts and also brings in outside speakers who aren't trying to sell products, Cowell said, such as a representative with the state Department of Insurance who spoke about homeowners' insurance.
Mary Longmire, a recruiting coordinator at SAS, recently took a class during lunch on financial budgeting. The course focused on creating a budget, controlling spending and finding ways to save more of your paycheck.
Now she's clipping more coupons, sticking to her grocery list – instead of bringing home extra stuff she doesn't really need – and buying clothes for her 6-year-old son at consignment sales instead of department stores.
The class also emphasized avoiding shopping when you're depressed or emotional, Longmire said.
“For me, it was a wake-up call,” she said. “I'm not terrified about Wall Street. This is just something we should all know: Be educated, being on the right track.”