Employee Benefits: As you consider a career change, don't forget the benefits

Employee Compensation
Are you considering a career change, don't forget the benefits

By Barb Zuehlke

You're considering a career move. The grass looks greener at another facility. Make sure you consider the offer from all angles. It doesn't all come down to the difference in salary.

If the offer means relocation, check into cost of living expenses. A house similar to what you have now may cost more in a different location and ultimately make the increased salary a decrease in your standard of living. And if it's a move to a larger city the extra time and cost of commuting should be taken into account.

And then there are the company benefits, often hidden compensation, that should be tabulated. Your evaluation of a job offer should include health insurance benefits, pension plan, vacation and holiday pay, work schedule, training opportunities, and corporate culture (is it going to be a comfortable working environment). Usually these benefits total around $5,000; not something to take for granted.

Before the interview process learn what you can by checking out the prospective company's web site or send an email. Learn more about the company, its focus, and what benefits are provided. With the current job market the research you do ahead of time can pay off in terms of the level of interest shown and in the types of questions you ask that will indicate your level of knowledge concerning the company and the industry.

According to Garrick Weaver, human resources recruiter for Keystone Helicopter Corp., "Potential employees should have a very good understanding of the company's web site, and their questions should be related to more of the details of what their responsibilities will be. Don't just ask questions because you feel you have to."

To get a better picture of what you're worth visit www.salary.com. By inserting an industry, occupation, and ZIP code you can get a range of salaries for a job. It includes base pay and total compensation to give you the information you need to make an informed decision. And it also lets you know the value of your total compensation package so you can make the best career choice.

Health insurance is on everyone's mind these days. Costs are going up about 15 percent a year, so you should know how much your potential employer will cover and how much you as an employee are responsible for in terms of each doctor visit or each pay period. Deductions can add up, and any change in an employer's health plan can create financial strain.

What does the health plan cover - dental, vision, prescriptions? Do you have the choice of physicians? Some employers have health maintenance organizations (HMOs) that narrow the selection and type of care covered, or there are preferred provider organizations (PPOs) plans that have a directory of doctors from which to choose. It encourages patients to use doctors inside the network but also allows them to see others for an extra charge.

A relatively new approach is Employee Medical Accounts (EMAs) which are established through Voluntary Employees Beneficiary Associations (VEBAs). The employer makes contributions into it like a 401(k) plan and employees add their own contributions, direct the investments, and receive statements. It rewards healthy individuals and reimburses medical expenses with tax-free dollars. It appeals to both employers for its cost savings and employees for the ability to direct the use of the funds. For more information visit www.vebaplan.com or contact Lance Wallach at (516) 938-5007 or email lawallach@aol.com.

Other forms of insurance to consider include life, disability, and long-term care insurance.

Retirement plan

When planning for the future in terms of career you also like to know that you'll have a nest egg when you retire. Not all companies provide retirement or profit-sharing plans, and in the current economic climate if there is one it might be cut back or even eliminated.

If you have a 401(k) retirement plan where you work now, there are several things to consider if you change employment. You can roll the investment into an individual retirement account (IRA), and then choose how the money is invested. If the money is transferred directly into another plan you can usually avoid taxes and penalties. If you withdraw money from a 401(k) account there is a 10 percent penalty issued from the IRS if you are under age 59 1/2. Exceptions to this are payment of health premiums after being unemployed for more than 12 weeks; covering out-of-pocket medical expenses that exceed 7.5 percent of your adjusted gross income; buying or building a first-time, primary residence; or paying for qualified education expenses for you, your spouse, children, or grandchildren.

Another option is rolling the plan into your new employer's plan. The rules for each company may be different or dependent on length of service. Make sure you know the company's policies. Or, you can leave the assets in the current plan; it depends on how you feel about the company and how your status changes in regard to privileges as an ex-employee.

It's tempting to take the assets in cash, but it may come as a shock when it comes time to pay taxes on the amount you withdraw. Employers must withhold 20 percent for prepayment of federal income taxes, then there's the 10 percent penalty mentioned earlier, plus any additional federal and state income taxes. Some may think that the assets will tie them over until the next job, but it is an expensive choice. It's best to seek advice from a tax adviser or investment consultant to make the right decision for your particular situation.

Vacation/holiday pay
You should know whether there is an official policy regarding vacation and holiday pay. Do you start off with one week or two? Is there a policy that requires you to sign up for time off months in advance? And will there be enough people to cover when you do take off or will there be a last-minute request for you to stay and work?

Work schedules

So what is the typical work schedule? Do you have to work nights and weekends? Is there flexibility if you need time off for a family emergency or extra compensation if you do work extra hours?

Another thing to consider is if you are the new kid on the block (or newest employee) do you have to start at the bottom of the ladder in terms of what shift you work or weekend duties? If this is the case how long does it take to move up the ladder? Or, will your experience put you on a higher level from the start?

Training opportunities
If you are considering a career change you want to make sure that there is room for advancement and this translates into additional training opportunities. Does your potential new employer provide on-site training or sponsor attendance to outside programs at trade shows or other company locations?

Keystone Helicopter, based in West Chester, Pennsylvania, employs more than 450 people. According to Weaver, the company is very satisfied with the quality of its employees and has a low turnover rate once people are hired. Weaver attributes this in part to its training programs. Keystone has hired a Sikorsky trained mechanic who formerly worked at FlightSafety as an instructor to perform a two-week, in-house training course for everyone.

"This form of training provides product familiarization and creates a level playing field for all our mechanics," Weaver says. And the use of in-house training programs is more affordable and can act as a recruitment tool as it is directed toward both entry level and experienced employees.

Corporate culture
Look at the longevity of the employees. Have people been there a long time? Ask why.

Is there an open door relationship between management and employees? Is it a relaxed family atmosphere or a more impersonal, corporate environment?

Your career choices depend on your education, experience, and expectations and how they match a potential employer's needs. The compensation benefits are just part of the whole package.