Like many people who work in pensions, Elaine Noel-Bentley certainly didn’t expect to end up in the industry. “Nine-year-olds don’t say, ‘I’m going to be a pension guru when I grow up,’ ” she says.
As a child, Noel-Bentley wanted to be a teacher. But the education system’s loss has been the pension industry’s gain. She entered the business in 1975 as an account rep at Great-West Life. She then spent five years at the Alberta Treasury as manager of pension services and 20 years at Petro-Canada focused on benefits and total compensation.
Over those years, Noel-Bentley built up a wealth of knowledge and expertise on pensions. And she’s been able to put that to good use, both as a long-serving member of various pension boards—she retired from Alberta’s Local Authorities Pension Plan Board this year after sitting as a member for 13 years—and in the pension-related courses she teaches at both Humber College and the University of Calgary. “I really enjoy the teaching side. It’s great fun,” she says.
And she’s quick to encourage those in her class to consider a career in pensions. “I always mention to my class that I can get irritatingly enthusiastic about pensions when I start teaching,” she admits. “What a great area to get involved with, because it’s not simple, it’s not straightforward, and the spread of areas that’s involved is stunning for people to have fun with.”
But Noel-Bentley knows that her passion alone won’t be enough to fix Canada’s retirement income inadequacy problem. And she wishes she could impart even a fraction of her passion and knowledge to the average Canadian who needs a better understanding of how to plan and save for retirement. “The thing that worries me is the narrowness of knowledge, the lack of real understanding of how [pensions] work and don’t work.”
While governments continue to talk of financial literacy, Noel-Bentley says she’s hesitant to believe it’s enough to shift attitudes. “Some people are interested in areas like that and some people simply aren’t,” she says.
As for the pooled registered pension plan (PRPP) as a potential saviour for bridging the gap in retirement coverage? “It’s really just another tool in the kit in the industry to sell to employers,” comments Noel-Bentley. In fact, the PRPP was one recommendation of Alberta and B.C.’s Joint Expert Panel on Pension Standards (JEPPS), to which she and five other pension experts were appointed in 2007.
“I called myself and my colleagues ‘pension weenies’—for people who live and breathe and love pensions,” she recalls, fondly remembering her full year on the panel. “What an opportunity to spend a full year with other knowledgeable people. We talked a lot in that report about target benefits, and I think there are opportunities to encourage and help people understand the value of those kinds of arrangements that leave employers less vulnerable. I do believe the biggest issue—and I’m not alone in saying this—is the lack of adequate pension coverage for too many workers.”
But lest you think Noel-Bentley is the pension weenie she says she is, she does have a life. She and her husband visit their daughter and granddaughter in Vancouver, and she walks her dog, a small poodle named Micro, when her husband isn’t available. She is also involved in non-pension-related boards. For example, she currently sits on the Beverage Container Management Board. “It’s to do with the governance of beverage recycling activities in the province. I’m finding it fascinating because it’s a complex area. I’ve learned that there are complexities other than pensions,” she laughs. “Who would have thought?”