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Kathryn Mayer: When benefits get personal

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Kathryn Mayer
Kathryn Mayer is HRE’s former benefits editor and chair of the Health & Benefits Leadership Conference. She has covered benefits for the better part of a decade, and her stories have won multiple awards, including a Jesse H. Neal Award and honors from the American Society of Business Publication Editors and the National Federation of Press Women. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Denver.

When I recently interviewed an employee whose workplace was helping her pay off student-loan debt, it put it in perspective for me just how big of a deal the benefit really is to the people who use it.

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“[My employer] allowed me to dive in deeper on [financial] next steps, what to do with debt and how to be financially well as an employee,” Serena Haming said of her employer, Trilogy Health Services. “No one had really sat down and talked to me about what that looked like.”

When I asked if her friends were jealous that her workplace made a monthly payment toward her educational debt, she quickly responded, “Oh yeah.”

“When I told my friends my company was paying off part of [my debt], they were like, ‘What?!’ ” she said. “[Student debt] is something all my friends have.”

By now, it’s no secret that student-loan benefits are an enviable perk: Surveys reveal it’s a top benefit desired by employees, especially younger ones. And the startling $1.6 trillion statistic–that’s how much student debt Americans hold collectively, according to the Federal Reserve–just underscores the cope of the problem.

Student-loan benefits have come into the spotlight as younger workers arrive in the job market at a rapid pace–and deeply in arrears. But, despite the association of student debt with younger workers, it’s not just a young-person problem. In fact, analysis finds that student-loan debt among seniors–age 60 and over–has increased 71.5% over the last five years.

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It appears this niche benefit is hitting the mainstream, especially in a hot economy where employers are struggling to retain and attract talent. “People might say, ‘This is a Silicon Valley thing or a tech company thing,’ ” Scott Thompson, CEO of Tuition.io, told me. “It’s anything but. I’m in the middle of the country every week, and that’s where this is really playing out.”

To his point, it’s not just the big names that are offering the benefit–it’s companies that run the gamut in size and industry, from Penguin Random House and auction house Sotheby’s to Selective Insurance Co. of America and Northern Rivers Family of Services, a nonprofit.

This is all positive news and an exciting trend to watch. To be sure, employers are creating value for themselves by offering these kinds of perks–in the way of improved retention, higher employee satisfaction and a strong attraction component.

But the meaningful difference is when companies offer benefits like student-loan-debt repayment or financial-wellness programs because they see problems they want to help employees solve. They want workers to be financially well and secure, to be able to save for retirement, to pay off debts faster, to break bad spending habits, to ease stress and the like.

A sense of caring is really what sets employers apart when it comes to benefits, and it’s that sense that will entice employees to stay at the company–long after their loans are paid off. And when the job market inevitably cools, it will become even more of an indicator of an employer’s core values.

In related (and, yes, self-serving) news: I’ll be hosting a panel about student-loan benefits at HRE’s Health & Benefits Leadership Conference, held April 15-17 in Las Vegas. I’m excited to talk to HR professionals about their programs, how they’ve been working and what they envision for the benefit. I’m also excited that HBLC will have a new track focused on financial wellness, which will look at how companies are implementing programs, rethinking retirement strategies and taking aim at employees’ financial stress. We’ll get a glimpse into what’s driving this interest, and why it all matters. I hope you’ll join me.