An adviser’s pivot from HR leads her to voluntary benefits

Whitney Ehret is one of EBA's 20 Rising Stars of 2020.
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Working in HR opened Whitney Ehret's eyes to the impact voluntary benefits can have on an employee’s day-to-day life. Beyond just attracting and retaining top talent, Ehret says the deeper value of these benefits is how they help an employee get through life challenges.

Ehret shares two real-life examples: For a teacher who gets cancer and is not able to work, cancer and disability insurance payments are what allows her to keep making payments on her mortgage. She also cites a father who unexpectedly passes away and was the sole income earner for his family; his life insurance policy provides enough for the family to keep their home and figure out a plan of action.

Additionally, the millennial workforce is shaping the way companies are implementing voluntary benefits, which have a huge impact on the entire workforce, she says.

“Beyond these examples, the changing demographic of the workforce to millennials is telling us that these benefits are going to be increasingly more important — not only are millennials interested in working for an employer that offers them, but they also plan on using these benefits,” Ehret says.

After a few years of working in HR for a hospital, she was eager for a bigger challenge and transitioned to the brokerage side. Today, she works as a voluntary benefits consultant at Burnham Benefits, a California-based employee benefits brokerage and consulting firm, where she drives revenue for the firm by managing the entire enrollment process, from sales to implementation. Burnham’s client base includes school districts, local government and large companies.

To find the right fit for her clients, she has to look at the whole picture of what voluntary benefits can provide for the employer, from medical coverage to wellness programs.

“At the end of the day, my job beyond revenue and anything else is to focus on making voluntary benefits easy for [employees] and improving their lives by utilizing those benefits,” says Ehret, one of 2020 Rising Stars in Advising. “Because I started in human resources, I have a passion to make this [process] easy for my clients.”

See also: Adviser tackles the myth of work-life balance

Ehret’s start in HR helped her better understand the needs of her clients and solve their most difficult issues. Often, she’s managing complicated transitions of employers, unions and workers who are hesitant to change brokers and make major changes due to long-time relationships with their current vendors.

“The public sector is an interesting animal when it comes to working with voluntary benefits,” says Dan Exceen, executive vice president and partner at Burnham Benefits. “Especially on the school district side there's some deep lasting relationships. So you have to tread lightly, and Whitney and I have to figure out how we navigate those waters.”

Ehret was put to the test in January, when she was working with a school district in California. The district had been with their provider for 15 years, and was resistant to the idea of transitioning to Ehret’s program and severing that relationship.

“The classified union president opens up Whitney's presentation, slams it shut and basically says ‘I'm not going to listen to you,’” Exceen says. “She is on her phone, texting and being disruptive, while Whitney is trying to present to the rest of the committee on why we're going to do this. But she got through it, and then everybody else on the committee saw the value.”

See also: Adviser starts his own firm in a quest for better benefits

Ehret has seen a variety of changes to voluntary benefits, as offerings moved away from a one-size-fits-all mindset that may not take into account the demographic and generational needs of a workplace. She’s seen a big uptick in worksite or supplemental health products such as pet insurance, whole life with long-term care, accident, critical illness and cancer support benefits.

“Consumers have more out of pocket costs,” Ehret says. “They have more skin in the game and that's really where the supplemental or worksite benefits fit and help to supplement that out-of-pocket costs for employees.“

Employers who are mindful of the variety of needs their employers have, depending on where they’re at in their lives, have a competitive edge in terms of recruiting and retention, says Ehret, noting that attention to demographics is key to coming up with tailored benefits.

“That's where you see what benefits are going to be popular for your group,” she says. ”If you're talking about millennials, they are looking for flashy benefits like pet insurance. I think student loan tuition is going to be increased as well and more employers will start to pay off some of that student loan debt for their employees in order to retain them.”

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Rising Stars in Advising Voluntary benefits Employee retention