Working in the pension industry has always been aligned with Shannan Corey’s personal interests and values.
Her father was an actuary so she was exposed to the pension industry from a very young age. After earning her mathematics degree at the University of Saskatchewan, she became an associate actuary, spending a few years in consulting with a focus on pensions.
“What resonated with me from a young age was how you got to impact people’s lives. I saw the impact on individuals and on employers being able to [improve recruitment and retention] by offering a pension and it just felt like a strong connection for me.”
Following those years in consulting, Corey spent some time working in total rewards in the private sector. At the time, she also wanted to broaden her human resources role, so she became a chartered professional in HR. Eventually, she decided to move to the public sector and joined the Saskatchewan Pension Plan in 2021 as executive director.
“I feel like I’ve gotten to see many different avenues and I keep gravitating back towards that member perspective. So that’s why I ended up with the Saskatchewan Pension Plan. We get to impact individual members’ lives, not just in Saskatchewan, but for anyone across Canada who can join our plan. That really resonates with my personal value system.”
In the role, Corey is responsible for overseeing the entire pension program, facilitating digital transformation and keeping the operations teams running.
“The SPP is very regulated so there’s a lot of compliance. There’s no other plan like ours in the world, as far as I know, so we have a very unique and complicated governance structure. We spend a lot of time on governance regulations. Thinking about changing our products requires a lengthy foundation setting with the regulators in order to move towards changes. So that’s a big part of what I do.”
She also oversees business development and marketing, which is a unique department to the SPP because it’s a voluntary plan and it actively recruits members.
Corey took over the role from Katherine Strutt when she retired after working for the plan since 1990. “I noticed right away Shannan was a quick study, so that allowed her to do what she needed to take over in the brief timeframe,” says Strutt. “She’s very qualified and brings a wealth of experience to the position. And I’m grateful the board chose such a qualified individual to take over the SPP.”
Women in pensions
When Corey entered the pension industry in the 1980s, the field was very male-dominated.
“It certainly wasn’t a traditional field for women when I started out. I was fortunate to have great mentors and I think that’s key. Switch to today, the SPP has a primarily female workforce. I think it’s a great privilege and an important responsibility for me to hopefully continue with mentoring women and all the staff here.”
The industry has evolved over the years, she adds, with many more women working in the pension sector compared to 30 years ago. She attributes this to the many positive spokespeople and mentors willing to help the industry grow.
Corey also believes the industry provides great career opportunities. “Sometimes, when people hear ‘pensions,’ they think it isn’t very exciting, but it’s actually a lot more interesting and challenging than you might think.”
When Strutt entered the field in 1990, she had a similar experience. “I remember, at one of the first conferences I went to, there were so few women and so few women in middle or upper management roles. I had some really good mentors, both men and women, but female role models were few and far between.”
Working out of a smaller community (the SPP is based in Kinderley, Sask.), Strutt didn’t have the same networking opportunities as someone working in Toronto or Edmonton, so conferences were a really important way to connect with other people in the field.
“Through those [conferences], I saw quite a change over the years. I don’t know if I’d say it’s 50/50, but there are certainly more women in upper management positions, so it’s a big step in the right direction. There are a lot of excellent male leaders out there, but I think women can bring a different focus or a new focus to an organization. It’s great that people are tapping into it because women have a lot to offer. And we also represent a large percentage of the [retiring] population.”
When Strutt decided to retire, it meant a lot that she was able to transfer such a significant role in the pension industry to another woman. “Transferring my role to another very qualified woman allowed me to walk out the door with confidence that the plan leadership was in good hands.”
If Corey could offer advice to women interested in working in pensions or a similar role, she’d tell them not to be afraid to try something new and reach out to different organizations. “We have so many great pension organizations across the country that are willing to take people on and help them develop. I think, within pension organizations in particular, to grow and develop your talent from within is probably the best leveraging opportunity. So for people who are willing to try it out, it doesn’t matter what age you are, you’re going to have those opportunities to grow and learn.”
Saskatchewan’s unique pension climate
In Canada, Saskatchewan is leading the way in embracing defined contribution pension plans, says Neil Lloyd, Western Canada wealth leader at Mercer.
In addition to the SPP, which was No. 25 on Benefits Canada’s 2022 Top DC Plans Report, the province boasts several other plans on the list, including: the Public Employees Pension Plan (Saskatchewan) at No. 1, the Co-operative Superannuation Society pension plan at No. 2 and the University of Saskatchewan at No. 12.
“The province has the two largest DC plans, along with the SPP, which is doing great work,” says Lloyd. “Saskatchewan has really evolved in the DC space and I think the SPP is another prime example of how to focus on getting more people into the retirement system and making sure people don’t get left out.”
The greatest weakness of the Canadian retirement system is the fact there are many people who don’t belong to a retirement plan, he adds. “This is the case in other countries as well, but when you look at things like global ranking surveys, they always show one of the top needs is to get people who aren’t part of a plan into the system. What’s fantastic about the SPP is it’s a vehicle for smaller businesses that don’t want to sponsor their own plan and individuals can join as well. Allowing people who can’t otherwise join a retirement plan to have this option is a massive success.”
One of the SPP’s biggest strengths, says Strutt, is that it’s member-focused. “Members know and trust them and the staff are really knowledgeable. [When I was there], we were able to assist members with [just about anything]. I think that’s just going to grow as the plan evolves with more members coming in. I believe it’s one of the leaders in terms of what you can do with something small and grow it exponentially. And the loyalty the plan has from its members is pretty striking.
“Building on the relationships we had with pension regulators, the ministry of finance and government officials, I think that made such a strong framework for the plan and it’s just continuing to grow with Shannan. Just watching its evolution, I have a lot of pride in my involvement and I’m confident the plan is just going to get better and better.”
As of April 2023, the SPP removed its annual contribution and transfer-in limits. As long as members have room in their registered retirement savings plans, they can contribute as much as they want to the SPP, within RRSP limits. In addition, if they have other unlocked investments they’d like to move over to the SPP, they can do so, no matter the amount.
“Anybody can contribute within their unused RRSP room and we don’t have a set cap within our plan anymore,” says Corey. “This is a pretty significant change for us. We can also accept any amount of registered non-locked [savings as a] transfer. We do lock our money in because we’re a pension plan and we’re meant to be there in retirement.”
A leader in decumulation
She also agrees Saskatchewan is leading the DC space in Canada and is excited to be a part of that movement. “We have a lot of collaboration going on within the province so we can offer both the accumulation and decumulation side.”
Indeed, in addition to an in-plan annuity that SPP members can purchase at retirement, the plan added a variable benefit option in January 2021. “It provides people with the flexibility to navigate their own personal needs,” says Corey. “We feel it’s a great option to have available and we’ve put a lot of time and energy into it in the last few years.”
While most Canadian jurisdictions allow in-plan variable benefits options, the SPP’s option is currently only available to members in Saskatchewan. “Our regulators wanted us to start with Saskatchewan members and ensure we had everything in place before rolling it out across the country,” she says, noting the organization is aiming to roll it out for all members by the end of 2023.
The really interesting developments in decumulation are tending to take place within non-employer sponsored retirement plans, says Lloyd. “I would never want to criticize employer-sponsored retirement plans — we’re very grateful to have them because they provide a way for employees to build retirement assets. But at the end of the day, employers have other purposes and other focuses, so their plans have typically taken a following role in terms of decumulation. When you’re sole purpose is to be a pension plan, you’re more likely to offer the time and assist people with any issues. It’s more natural for those plans to offer decumulation features.”
Another advantage for plans like the SPP is their economies of scale, he adds, noting if more people stay in the plan to draw down their savings, it will bring down the fees for all members. “These plans have more of a natural incentive or desire to focus on decumulation and I think that’s why they’re so successful.”
The SPP is always looking at what the rest of the industry is doing, notes Corey, whether it’s on the accumulation or decumulation side. “I’m just really happy to be [a part of this pension plan]. We serve such a public social policy need — and a gap — so I’m very proud of that. Not many people know that we serve all of Canada, we’re a national plan.
“The idea that we can help enhance retirement security for everybody and do it using a low-cost model is important because all of the regulators worked hard to set it up so everyone has this opportunity.”
Sadie Janes is an associate editor at Benefits Canada and the Canadian Investment Review.