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Liz Weston: Companies are also flunking retirement planning

FILE - This April 2017 file photo provided by NerdWallet shows Liz Weston, a columnist for personal finance website NerdWallet.com. (NerdWallet via AP, File)

Plenty has been written about American workers' failure to plan adequately for retirement. Their employers seem to be doing an even worse job.

Only 1 in 10 large employers offers a formal phased-retirement program that lets workers cut back their hours or responsibilities before they quit work entirely, according to the 2018 Longer Working Careers Survey by professional services consultant Willis Towers Watson. Fewer than 1 in 3 of the companies surveyed offered their employees the option to work part time or switch to a less demanding job, according to the survey, which polled 143 large U.S. companies that employ 2.9 million people.

That's too bad, because flexible work arrangements don't just help people who need or want to work longer. These accommodations also could help workers who are starting families, pursuing degrees or caring for aging parents.

PROGRAMS VARY WIDELY

Formal phased retirement programs can take many forms. Examples cited in a 201 7 report by the Government Accountability Office include:

—One program that allows workers who are at least 55 years old with 10 years of service to cut their hours by 20 percent with a 20 percent cut in pay, but keep health insurance and pension accrual benefits.

—Another that allows employees 60 and older with five years of service to reduce their hours by 20 percent to 50 percent, or even more if they're willing to lose their health insurance benefit.

—An employer that allows workers 55 and older with seven years of service to negotiate their own "glide path" to retirement, ramping down from full time to full retirement while retaining benefits.

—Yet another company that allows any employee to switch to less stressful or complex duties or phase to part-time work, retaining health insurance if they work at least 25 hours a week.

Employers that offer phased retirement typically say the plans are good for business, the GAO report found.

Phased retirement allows both the company and the worker to adjust over time, rather than scrambling to deal with an abrupt departure. Businesses can plan better since they know well in advance when an employee plans to leave, plus they can arrange for experienced workers to train or mentor younger ones, transferring years (and sometimes decades) of employer-specific knowledge.

"Otherwise, years of institutional knowledge could be walking out the door," says Susan Weinstock, vice president for financial resiliency programming at AARP.

FOR EMPLOYERS, RETIREMENT CAN DRAIN TALENT AND KNOWLEDGE

Most employers realize retirement is a looming issue, with 83 percent of the large employers Willis Towers Watson polled saying significant numbers of their workers are approaching retirement age. In fact, 54 percent of employers believe the loss of talent from retiring workers will be more significant than other labor market risks in the next five years, the survey found.

Employers may not fully grasp, however, how many people may need to keep working because they haven't saved enough , says retirement trends expert Catherine Collinson, CEO and president of the nonprofit Transamerica Institute and Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies.

For example, 7 out of 10 employers polled in last year's Transamerica Survey of Employers Were confident that their workers would retire with adequate retirement savings. But 6 out of 10 employees had similar confidence. (Studies by the Employee Benefit Research Institute have found that 57 percent of U.S. households headed by people ages 35 to 64 are on track with retirement savings.)

EMPLOYEES CAN BE AFRAID TO ASK

Another disconnect: Employers often think their employees aren't interested in more flexible schedules or phased retirements, because workers haven't asked. But employees may be afraid to inquire, lest they seem less than gung-ho about their jobs or get shoved out the door before they're ready, Collinson says.

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"Employees may not want to tip their hands," she says.

Flexible schedules and phased retirements aren't panaceas, of course. For many, continuing to work simply won't be an option. The Employee Benefit Research Institute found that nearly half of workers retired earlier than they expected for reasons that included layoffs, health issues or the need to care for someone else.

You may think you'll work until you die, in other words, but chances are pretty good that you won't.

Those who do want to work longer, and can, may have to take matters into their own hands. Collinson says people can improve their odds of negotiating a phased retirement by keeping their job skills up to date and focusing on job performance.

"A superstar is going to have greater negotiating power than the average employee," she says.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the personal finance website NerdWallet. Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet, a certified financial planner and author of "Your Credit Score." Email: lweston@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @lizweston.

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