Are your pension and benefits plans ready for the immigration wave?

Two-thirds. According to the 2006 Census, that’s how much of Canada’s population growth is coming from immigration. By 2030, immigration may account for all of Canada’s population growth.

With labour shortages on the horizon, there’s no question that we’ll need every pair of hands that crosses our border. But the influx of talent from abroad will have serious implications for Canadian plan sponsors, especially as they introduce defined contribution pension plans or flex benefits plans, which hand over much of the decision making to employees.

The most obvious challenge will be communicating these plans. Most immigration currently comes from Asia, where neither English nor French is the first language. And while many immigrants will have had English instruction in their home country, it may not be enough to prepare them for decisions about their pensions or benefits, says Erwin Janush, senior vice-president of Aon Consulting in Chicago. “I think there’s less concern about the words and more concern about the intent or the context and the implications of their decisions,” says Janush, adding that some companies have taken steps to introduce on-site language training when their workforce demographics warrant it.

But language is only one hurdle. People from different parts of the world also have differing attitudes about (and expectations for)retirement, benefits and compensation.

Andrés Tapia, chief diversity officer and emerging workforce solutions leader with Hewitt Associates, points out that the northern European cultural archetype tends to be individualistic, while people coming from Asian cultures tend to be more communal. “[If ] the reward system is geared toward the ‘I’ but you’re dealing with a growing population that’s geared toward the ‘we’ or ‘us,’ then is the reward system going to yield you the results that you want?”

Employees’ social and historical experiences also play a role, says Tapia. For instance, employees who come from countries experiencing hyperinflation may be reluctant to save for retirement. “You want to spend it as fast as you can, otherwise it’s going to be worthless,” says Tapia.

So what can employers do to help newcomers? Ensuring the communication materials for their pension and benefits plans are appropriate to the target audience is key. Retirement materials that picture a white couple walking on a beach won’t necessarily resonate with people from other backgrounds.

Before revisiting their communication efforts, however, employers need to gauge the cultural makeup of their workforce. The problem is, most employers don’t necessarily have this type of information about their employees, and many are squeamish about asking for it in this age of cultural sensitivity.

But employers may have to get past their discomfort if they’re going to strengthen what Tapia calls their “crosscultural competence.” “More employers are actually saying, ‘We’re serious about diversity and inclusion, and in order to be serious about it, we’ve got to start counting.'”

Don Bisch is the editor of BENEFITS CANADA.

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© Copyright 2007 Rogers Publishing Ltd. This article first appeared in the April 2007 edition of BENEFITS CANADA magazine.