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Employment benefits

How important is your benefits package to you? The chances are that if you have not changed jobs recently, you will not even be sure what perks your company gives you.

But the trend is to offer staff more freedom when it comes to choosing benefits - which employers see as cost effective and a good way of reminding employees what they are getting.

And experts say it's wise to check out what employers do offer, particularly if you have hit a pay plateau in your career and want to work for a company with a congenial atmosphere and a commitment to staff development.

'Generally speaking, leading organisations with large human resources departments are offering more sophisticated benefits packages and approaching it as part of their reward structure, ' says Nick Page, advisor with the Institute of Personnel and Development (IPD). 'This is a big cost, which companies have re-examined, asking if staff value benefits and whether the expense is justified.'

The more sought after your skills, the more likely you are to get a tempting deal from your next employer, Page believes.

'Companies want to differentiate themselves from the competition - particularly in a sector like engineering, which is a tight labour market with skills shortages.'

With this in mind, many firms are taking a fresh look at the benefit schemes and offering staff a flexible package. 'Typically, people can pick and mix You are given a certain number of points and can choose from a menu of benefits. The more senior you are, the more points you will have.'

Major engineering firms who are moving in this direction include Mott MacDonald and WS Atkins. David Donald, head of human resources at Mott MacDonald, says that his firm currently offers standard benefits including a company pension, five extra days holiday for long serving and senior staff, travelling expenses, sickness and disability benefits, medical insurance and free medicals for director level staff. But feedback from staff has indicated that they would like to have more choice.

'In the long term, I see people choosing their benefits, ' he says.

'Staff have indicated that they are in favour of both flexible benefits, and working flexi-time, so that they can claim back any overtime they do.'

WS Atkins has gone a step further, and is piloting a flexible benefits scheme among selected business units in the UK. According to Bob Cross, group HR director: 'The aim of our flexible benefits plan is to offer more choice to our employees.

The plan is voluntary, so they are able to choose what's right for them and if so, how much or how little flexibility they would prefer within the terms of the plan.

'Although it's early days, reaction from employees has been positive and take up has been encouraging. If the pilot is successful we aim to extend flexible benefits across the group.'

Engineering firms may be keen to respond to what employees want, but Tim Sharples, head of corporate consulting with pensions consultant Callund Consulting, says many people could get a better deal from their company if they knew more about financial products.

Assuming that you are financially cushioned just because your firm has a benefits scheme in place may be naive.

'The problem now is that because of the way the financial markets are performing, employees are not getting as much as they wanted out of company pensions, ' he warns. At the moment, companies are waiting to see what happens, but at some point they may have to bring in additional financial benefits to cushion staff. So currently, although company pensions areportable, you may need more from your next employer than this most traditional of financial benefits.

Perks of the job

Company car: Still the best way to measure your status.

Staff pension: Better deals than private schemes.

Health insurance: The more senior you are, the fuller this will be.

Flexi-time: Gives you the chance to claim back all those extra hours.

Flexible benefits: The system which gives you pick the of the perks.

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