Many Americans face a yawning gap between how much they have saved and how much they will need when they leave the workforce.
But a handful of large companies give employees a big assist in the form of substantial contributions to their retirement plans. The difference between the richest benefits and ordinary offerings for the average worker often amounts to thousands of dollars a year, and sometimes tens of thousands.
That divide is largely hidden from public view, and many people know little about how their retirement plans compare with others. So The Wall Street Journal asked BrightScope, a San Diego firm that rates retirement plans, to calculate just how generous large plans offered by employers were, based on documents filed with the federal government.
Among the findings: The most lucrative plans routinely provided the average worker $12,000 to $20,000 a year to sock away, above and beyond their pay—more than three to five times the average company contribution in retirement plans of a similar size around the country, according to the analysis. One plan topped $30,000.
The differences among plans could have a significant impact on when workers will be able to retire, and how comfortably. Employers have been moving steadily away from traditional pensions, adding to the importance for workers of having other sources of retirement income—and of finding the best deal possible.
"There's a lot of variation, and you should know about the variation and exploit it," says Stephen Utkus, who runs the VanCguard Center for Retirement Research.
At Deloitte, the accounting giant, a profit-sharing plan gave participants $30,806 a year on average in recent years, according to the analysis. The plan is intended to help "attract and retain the highest caliber professional talent," the firm said in a statement.
Plans covering pilots at major airlines also were among the richest, led by United Airlines' plan, which gave the average participant $23,476 annually. United merged with Continental Airlines in 2010, and is now known as United Continental Holdings.
Financial firms also ranked high. Wellington Management, investment adviser on the mammoth Vanguard Wellington Fund, gave workers in its retirement plan an average of $19,625 a year, according to the analysis. General Re, a Berkshire Hathaway insurance unit, contributed $16,732 worth of Berkshire stock, on average.
Company contributions are in addition to whatever money employees set aside for retirement on their own, either through employer-sponsored plans or independent accounts.
In many cases, the heftiest contributions represented well over the 10% to 12% of income that experts say is the minimum workers might need to save to have a good chance of making it through retirement without lowering their standard of living.
Capital Group Cos., which runs American Funds, says it gives employees 15% of compensation—resulting in an average contribution of $15,801, according to the analysis. At United Continental, the airline contributes 16% to pilots' retirement accounts.
Pilots at American Airlines currently get 14%, rising to 16% in January if the merger between parent AMR and US Airways Group closes by then, according to a person familiar with the matter. The retirement benefits are less than pilots got before American sought bankruptcy protection, the person said, but the percentage is still relatively high.
In a number of the most-lucrative plans, employees don't need to make any contribution to get company money. Other firms make outright contributions and match what workers set aside.
Amgen, a biotechnology concern, says it provides 5% of pay automatically through its 401(k) plan, and matches up to 5% of employee contributions—which amounted to more than $13,000 a year in company money for the average employee, according to the analysis.
In many cases, plans that provide the biggest contributions cover a workforce largely made up of highly compensated employees. But there are exceptions.
W.W. Grainger, a supplier of industrial gear with many workers in sales and distribution-center operations, sets aside up to 18% of compensation per year for employees, including those who are paid hourly, according to company officials.
"They make no contribution to it, except hard work," says Joseph High, senior vice president for the Lake Forest, Ill., firm. Workers in the plan got $10,347 on average a year from the company, according to the analysis.
BrightScope conducted the analysis based on company contributions to employees enrolled in 479 401(k), profit-sharing or other defined-contribution private-sector retirement plans, covering more than 11 million workers, from 2007 to 2011, the most recent years for which data are filed with the U.S. Labor Department.
To be included, plans had to have at least $1 billion in assets in one of those five years. That leaves out many smaller firms and professional partnerships that might offer richer benefits.
There are federal caps on annual contributions to these kinds of retirement plans, which allow workers to defer taxes. Individuals can currently put in up to $17,500 a year, and combined contributions from individuals and employers can add up to $51,000, according to Mark Luscombe, principal federal tax analyst at CCH, a unit of Wolters Kluwer. Workers 50 years or older can put aside another $5,500. In addition, only $255,000 of pay can be considered.
The analysis highlights large gaps in the amounts Americans are likely to have set aside when they retire. The average employee in the 479 plans, offered by some of America's largest companies, received $3,863 a year in the period.
In addition, less-lucrative plans often provide a lower percentage of pay. In defined-contribution plans that offer a standard company match, the typical company match is worth 3% of pay and requires the employee to contribute 6% to get that company money, according to Vanguard Group data on plans where it serves as record-keeper.
About half the plans that let employees defer pay also offer employer contributions that aren't tied to what an employee puts in, according to Vanguard. Those contributions typically equate to 4.2% of pay.
More broadly, fewer than half the workers in the private sector are covered by a retirement plan at work, according to Alicia Munnell, director of the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. "Enormous disparities exist," she says.
The differences among retirement plans also show how a company's strategic goals shape workers' benefits. Companies routinely look at what others in the industry offer, according to experts.
"Everybody is going to pay lip service to the idea that they're taking care of their employees," says Mike Alfred, chief executive of BrightScope. In the boardroom, he adds, the considerations are "much more Machiavellian."
Employees who understand the system can see how their employers and competitors stack up and weigh the factors that might be driving benefit decisions—and learn how to look for the best deal.
Here is what workers need to know:
Comparisons Can Be Tough
It isn't always easy to determine whether one company's retirement benefits are richer than another's—or how those benefits fit into the bigger picture of overall compensation.
Companies file basic information with the Labor Department. BrightScope's analysis for the Journal used those filings to figure out which plans resulted in the most money going to the average employee.
That dollar figure is telling, experts say. Companies weigh how much they want to spend on benefits, and employees care how much falls to their personal bottom line.
But that sum isn't the whole story. A company contribution worth tens of thousands of dollars might mean a lot to someone making $60,000, but much less to someone earning $400,000, Ms. Munnell says.
"If you don't know the income of the people, it's very hard to say if that's a lot or a little," she says.
Experts look at what percentage of income retirement savings represent. But companies don't have to disclose publicly what percentage of income they contribute, experts say. There is no public clearinghouse where outsiders can get specific information, so finding out about a rival company or a potential employer might require some digging or networking.
Corporate retirement benefits also sometimes include more than one plan, so employees could be receiving company contributions in a 401(k) plan but also be due benefits through a separate defined-benefit plan, for example.
A retirement plan also is one of many possible benefits. A particularly generous health plan, for instance, could be worth more than a bigger company contribution to a 401(k).
Many industries also emphasize other types of pay. Wall Street, for instance, favors bonuses.
Lastly, even two retirement plans that provide similar company contributions can be more or less desirable for employees, depending upon how good the mutual funds or other investment options are—and the fees those plans and funds charge.
Plans Have a Purpose
Retirement plans also can include a mix of outright contributions and matching contributions. Companies can match employee contributions dollar for dollar, 50 cents on the dollar or in a variety of other ways.
"These plans have more angles than a box of ice cubes," says Jim Phillips, president of Retirement Resources, a Peabody, Mass., firm that helps companies design and manage plans.
Remember one point amid the chaos—the design is probably not an accident. Companies generally have a strategy when they structure a plan.
Often, it is about keeping up with rivals. Philip de Toledo, president of Capital Group, says the company's aim is "to be competitive with premier employers in all of the places where we work."
Competitors in the mutual-fund business also provide a significant percentage of pay. Fidelity Investments, for instance, matches employee contributions up to 7% of eligible compensation, and it puts up to another 10% aside as a profit-sharing contribution.
Companies contribute more when they have "unique labor pools that are highly skilled," where workers are generally well-paid and generate high revenue per employee, according to BrightScope's Mr. Alfred.
Offering a significant amount of deferred compensation through a retirement plan also can help create a certain type of workforce, says Vanguard's Mr. Utkus. The thinking? "I'm attracting the long-term thinkers, the patient employees," he says.
At Grainger, the industrial-supply firm, the percentage of compensation the company contributes is tied to profitability, a common practice. The contributions also ramp up for longer-tenured workers, so that it is calculated on 20% of pay for someone at the company for a year, but 100% of pay for someone at the company for five years, Mr. High says.
The company makes no products of its own, it only supplies them—so there is a premium on service, adds Mr. High, whose other title is chief people officer. "We demand that you perform, and perform over time," he says. "We have to deliver for customers."
Some companies also calibrate contributions to try to entice workers to set aside a certain amount of their own money. Mr. Phillips says two investment firms he knows—including a hedge fund with about 25 employees—match employee contributions dollar for dollar up to 10% of pay, with the company putting in another 6% as well.
At Capital Group, Mr. de Toledo says helping workers save for a secure retirement decreases the chance older employees will feel forced to keep punching the clock. "It doesn't have them stay here just for the money," he says. "They're here because they want to be."
Plans Aren't Set in Stone
Americans who want higher Social Security benefits can lobby Congress, while workers who want a richer retirement plan typically have to persuade their employer. Both are daunting challenges.
Employees who want to give it a try in the workplace should prepare a clear, strong argument backed up with supporting evidence, says Chris Lyon, a partner at Rocaton Investment Advisors, a Norwalk, Conn., firm that works with companies on their plans.
"That gets attention," he says. "If they're considering a change, it might push them over the fence." If a number of employees express the same desire, that might also carry more weight, he says.
Workers can push for lower fees, different investment options or other changes. Asking the company to make bigger contributions can be a tough argument, Mr. Lyon says.
But knowing the landscape can pay off in other ways. Job seekers, in particular, can study the different benefits at prospective employers in order to get a sense of who the company is competing with, what kinds of workers they want to attract—and what the total compensation package might look like.
The flip side is that employers can sometimes cut retirement benefits, and some did amid the financial crisis. Benefits are a major expense at many companies, and some look for ways to trim the cost. Plan documents should spell out whether the employer has committed to any mandatory contributions, says CCH's Mr. Luscombe.
Kevin Skow, a principal at Milliman, a consulting firm in Seattle, says one manufacturing firm he knows of dropped its matching contribution, which amounted to 50% of what an employee set aside up to 6% of pay, in 2009. The company reinstated the match in 2011, but at a lower level, he says.
The issue for a company that is cutting back: "What is the point at which participants are going to start reacting negatively?" Mr. Skow says.
As the economy has improved, some companies have reinstated contributions they had pared back, Mr. Lyon says. But there still is slack in the labor market and inflation remains low, making it easier for companies to hold the line against richer benefits.
"They are inching back to the pre-financial-crisis generosity. But they are not there yet," Mr. Lyon says. As for when they might make it all the way back, he adds, "Not quickly."
Write to Liam Pleven at firstname.lastname@example.org
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