Pension scheme helps Enable Ireland compete for talent

How Zurich is helping Enable Ireland staff to fund their pensions and sow the seeds of prosperity for their future. This article is an Irish Times Content Studio production.

Planning for retirement is important to John O’Sullivan. It’s why the chief executive of Enable Ireland encourages everyone in his organisation, which provides disability services to adults and children, to think ahead – and fund their pension.

Now in his late fifties, John started his own career at just 17. “I walked in the door to what was the old Eastern Health Board during the week of the big snow, in 1982,” he recalls.

Despite his youth, it was the value of a “permanent and pensionable job” that attracted him to the organisation, which became the HSE.

“I knew I wanted to work in the public or civil service. My family were very much of the mind to get a safe job. That was part of the culture of the time,” says John.

It proved a great choice. “I worked my way up through a variety of roles. In 2000 I moved into the area of disability services and, when the opportunity came up to join Enable Ireland, I grabbed it. Initially I had a regional job, which became a national job and, when the then CEO retired in 2018, I was lucky enough to get this job,” he says modestly.

Enable Ireland is what’s known as a Section 39 organisation, which means it is grant-aided by the HSE, but its staff are not deemed to be public servants.

The impact that the move from the HSE to Enable Ireland would have on his pension was therefore a serious consideration for him.

“One of the big decisions I had to make when I joined Enable Ireland was around my pension. I had to do the maths and project forward to see what difference the move would make to my pension. I was very cautious,” he admits.

“The modern worker tends to move around a lot more and that can be a challenge when it comes to managing a pension. My advice to young people today would be to look ahead and try to start your pension as early as you can.”

As the father of a grown-up family, “It’s a message I passed on to my children too,” he adds.

Getting a head start

Today John actively encourages Enable Ireland staff to join its occupational pension scheme.

Under the scheme the organisation contributes seven per cent of salary towards each member’s pension. “That’s tax-free money,” he points out. “People get all excited about the tax back on the Bike to Work Scheme but forget all about the tax benefits of a pension. We are lucky to have an extremely talented work force with us and having an attractive pension scheme is one of the ways we can continue to attract the best talent to work for us and enhance our services.”

He admits that it can be tricky to entice staff into the organisation with competition from within the wider Public Sector. Candidates are often concerned about pension implications but these days the gap between its pension scheme, and those in the public sector has narrowed.

Enable Ireland employs 1,435 skilled and experienced people and has an annual turnover of €70 million. This is made up of HSE funding, public fundraising, and revenue from its 24 retail shops. “The profit from the shops is used to support the services, which is wonderful,” says John.

Over 13,000 children and adults with physical, sensory and intellectual disabilities benefit from its services every year. It offers therapy and support services, residential and respite services, and family support in the home, education and community settings. The organisation provides a number of pre-schools and is patron to two special schools.

The breadth of its offering is impressive. It ranges from a specialised seating service to modify wheelchairs, so each individual user is as comfortable as possible, to assisted technology services to support people to live healthy, productive, independent, and dignified lives. One such example is the use of eye gaze technology, which allows you to control a device, like your computer, by the movements of your eyes. “With new technologies, the possibilities are endless,” he says.

Partnering with Zurich

Enable Ireland offers a range of employee benefits, including generous annual leave entitlements, training opportunities and an employee assistance programme.

New employees can sign up to its pension scheme within six months of joining and the employer’s contribution includes life cover too, and additional benefits.

John believes the introduction of pension auto-enrolment, set for next year, is an opportunity to double down on conversations about the importance of pension planning, particularly for young people.

In recent years Enable Ireland has undertaken a complete overhaul of its own scheme, winding down its defined benefit pension, which had become unsustainable, and replacing it with a defined contribution one.

“We did a root and branch review. Where previously we had one pension trustee, we brought in two directors and two employee representative trustees as well. We got a new pensions administrator and we met with five or six pension providers, ultimately changing to Zurich,” says O’Sullivan.

There were a number of reasons for that choice. “We were really impressed with the level of engagement Zurich offered and also with the cost - it was much more efficient, with more of our contributions being invested in the fund,” he explains. “Its performance was better than the incumbent’s,” he explains, acknowledging that past performance is no predictor of future outcomes.

Since the switch, Zurich’s support for staff has included webinars and, now that Covid risks have reduced, face-to-face seminars on topics ranging from understanding AVCs (additional voluntary contributions) to preparing for life in retirement.

“Zurich is also good at explaining its ESG (environmental, social and governance) focus as well, which is important because staff want to know what its pension fund is investing in, if it is in things like oil, for example,” he adds.

“We all have access to an online hub so we can go in and look at our pension savings, to see how they are preforming, and we get a statement too. Between Zurich, our pensions administrator and ourselves, the three of us work very well together. With auto enrolment coming down the track we need to get ready for that too.”

It’s a working relationship that helps Enable Ireland to encourage all staff to prepare for retirement, no matter what age they are. “We just think it’s important for people to plan for their future,” he says.

The information contained herein is based on Zurich Life’s understanding of current Revenue practice as at 1st April 2023 and may change in the future.

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