Weighing the Benefits

Look beyond the base salary to determine a job offer’s value.

Mike Caldwell, executive director of TCU’s Center for Career & Professional Development

Weighing the Benefits

Look beyond the base salary to determine a job offer’s value.

SALARY IS ONLY PART OF THE STORY WITH A JOB OFFER. From medical insurance and sick leave to vacation days and employer retirement contributions, good benefits are worth serious money and can also help support a healthy work-life balance. In a survey of college students, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found that 73.1 percent ranked a 401(k) retirement account as very or extremely important. We talked to Mike Caldwell, executive director of TCU’s Center for Career & Professional Development, about the value of benefits. 

Is it possible to put a dollar amount on benefits? Absolutely; I think it’s important to calculate benefits that way. I’d encourage someone to do their research and see what purchasing healthcare independently would cost and what that difference would be in receiving employer-provided or employer-supplemented health care. Fidelity has a pretty good salary evaluator; you can put in things like matching retirement and it will do the calculation for you and tell you if offer A is going to be better than offer B. It’ll also factor in the location if you’re working in a different city where your cost of living is going to be different. And I just encourage people with an offer to work with their human resources department or the recruiter to get that information so you can really make a smart call on the offer. 

How important are good job benefits to new graduates? I think it used to be almost an assumption that recent grads are not thinking about that as much. But I’ve seen a change in that. We had a student panel recently, and one of the students was specifically talking about when employers asked them how they evaluated offers, they went through the benefits and talked about how that definitely was a factor in their decision-making process. 

Do you attribute that to the students becoming more savvy or to maybe healthcare and other benefits costing more? I think it’s a combination of those things. I think students do their research, so they’re seeing more than just what the immediate impact of the job is — the salary that they’re going to receive — but long-term how that’s going to impact them. And I also think they have a lot more conversations with their parents. And I think their parents and faculty and other advisors around them are also encouraging them to think more carefully and critically about benefits.  

In some of the data that our National Association of Colleges and Employers presents in terms of importance, students point to things like family-friendly leave, so that might be vacation leave, family leave and flexible policies. We are seeing a trend upward in that scheduling and leave availability — it is definitely more and more important. 

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At the top of the list was a 401(k). Why should employees look closely at that? I think students are calculating salary and cost of living; if you calculate that 401(k) match or benefit into your earnings, that’s going to be a differentiator in some cases. If an employer is matching up to 5 or 10 percent, that’s going to mean a bump in your salary. So if you’re comparing salary A versus salary B, that may be something that’s the deciding factor.  

Our folks over in campus wellness in the rec center, they have a financial literacy seminar that they produce. Brad Stewart, associate director of the Wellness Center, goes through those things with students and gives them some really great materials in terms of what that match means and how it can compound over time. I would definitely advise alumni and students look at [vesting] time — will you have to be there one year, two years?

Is the ability to work from home considered a benefit? I think a lot of times employers present it as a benefit. And I think that it depends on the employer, it depends on the arrangement and depends on the position as well. That’s really important as you’re evaluating an offer that you don’t make the assumption that this position is remote and will stay remote, because things may change. I’ve seen it directly with folks who have started one way, maybe they were fully remote and now they’re going back to three days. Maybe you relocated and now you’re going to have to move back. 

Are some benefits disappearing in the current job climate? I would say anecdotally, tuition reimbursement. I think employers utilized that more frequently in the past. Now, that may also include a clause that requires you to continue employment with that organization for a number of years, or to have been there a length of time before you can obtain that benefit. I think that some employers are doing more short-term things like executive education programs, in-house training programs and other ways to meet those needs. 

“That’s really important as you’re evaluating an offer that you don’t make the assumption that this position is remote and will stay remote, because things may change.”
Mike Caldwell

Are employers starting to offer new types of benefits? I think the trendy one is benefits for pets, because employers know that family-friendly also might mean pet-friendly. It might mean that you’re able to bring a pet into the office or that there is pet health care offered in addition to health care. That way, it makes the workplace more inclusive for those new hires who don’t have children or don’t plan to have children. 

I see a lot of different things on the idea of the “unlimited vacation” — it’s a little bit of a misnomer. The way it works is you submit a request. Now whether that request might be granted, it might depend. You still have a schedule, you still have deadlines to meet. So in theory — if the business or your supervisor allowed it — you could potentially have as much as a month, two months off of work. 

But one thing I caution is that sometimes that also means that you don’t get that as a payout. If you have vacation time with an employer that grants two weeks a year, for example, if you still have a week of vacation, you’re going to get paid that benefit if you leave that job. If they have an unlimited PTO policy, you’re not going to have any benefit at all. And I think some people don’t fully understand that when they see those exciting things.  

Are there benefits that go unused or underused? Sometimes a life insurance benefit, sometimes long-term disability. In some cases, there may be benefits such as counseling benefits, employee assistance programs, fitness memberships. If you’re evaluating two offers, knowing which health insurance provider is offered can be important as well. And as more and more people are looking at remote jobs, that can definitely be a factor, because you want to know: “Am I going to have to stay within network?” There are some California health care providers that are not able to operate outside of the state. So that creates some challenges.