Employee perks return as pay stagnates

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Perks have become a key tool to entice employees to stay with a company.Chuck Burton / AP
/ Source: DailyFinance

Don't hold your breath for that raise just yet. Pay hikes are still scarce in this economy, according to a new survey by Accountemps, a company that provides temporary accounting, finance and bookkeeping services. But that doesn't mean that you can't improve your compensation in some other way.

To retain top employees and attract new ones, U.S. companies are increasingly turning to perks such as subsidized training and flexible work conditions rather than raises, Accountemps has found. A division of Robert Half International, Accountemps surveyed more than 1,400 chief financial officers from a random sample of U.S. companies with 20 employees or more.

Asked which perks their companies would offer to attract and retain employees in 2011, 29% of respondents answered subsidized training and education, 24% named flexible work hours or telecommuting and another 24% cited mentoring programs. Matching-gift programs were mentioned by 13% of respondents, while 11% listed free or subsidized meals, and another 11% cited on-site perks like child care, dry cleaning and fitness centers.

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A cost-effective strategy
The findings echo the conclusions of a December report by Robert Half International, which surveyed human-resource managers. Half of the managers surveyed said they would be willing to negotiate greater perks for a promising candidate. They saw the perks as cost-effective, with the ability to spur innovation and improve employee morale, productivity and loyalty, according to the report.

Why are perks making a comeback? Bill Driscoll, Northeastern district president for Robert Half International, says it's partly because "companies have been very frugal as it relates to raises. Employees have been taking pay cuts. Although these benefits are not financial, it makes employees feel better about their job, makes them want to stay with their company."

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Educational benefits are especially attractive to today's "constantly changing work force," Driscoll says, as well as mentoring programs, which he considers another form of training. "Many employees are always looking for ways to be more competitive and develop their skill sets." Employees also value flexible business hours and the ability to telecommute, he adds.

Some employers worry that employees might leave their jobs once their education is paid for. Although that's indeed a danger, Driscoll claims that the risk is worth taking. Education and other perks "build loyalty to the organization, improve morale," he says.

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Looking for other means of compensation
At a time when the "cradle-to-grave" mentality is long gone, perks have become a key tool to entice employees to stay with a company, Driscoll adds. "That's the main way to hold employees, to create an environment where they feel really good about the organization they work for. If companies invest in them, they tend to give more of themselves. They want to be with an organization like that."

Karen Sumberg, senior vice president of the Center for Work-Life Policy, a New York think tank focused on workplace issues, says her group's research mirrors Accountemps's latest findings. The center, she says, has been "hearing quite a bit in our research that Gen Y and baby boomers are looking for other ways to be compensated besides money."

Perks can help employees advance and stay engaged -- especially in the U.S., where work is an important place for people, she adds. "In general, the work force is moving to people wanting more autonomy over their time," she says. "They're also looking for ways to better themselves [and] build connections through mentoring."

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