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Bulking Up Benefits

Nvidia Corp. has introduced a host of new offerings designed to help its people save time, money and stress spent on worries away from work and on the job. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2016
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Beau Davidson remembers what it's like to be a freshly minted college graduate leaving campus with high hopes -- and heavy debt.  

"I worked for PepsiCo right out of school," says Davidson, who graduated from Cornell University with a master's degree in industrial and labor relations in 1998. As an entry-level employee -- living on an entry-level salary -- "it was shocking to me when my college loan came due, along with my car payment and so on. It was tough."

Today, Davidson is the vice president of HR at Nvidia Corp. As he looks around the technology company's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., he sees many young co-workers in the same economic straits he found himself in nearly 20 years ago.

"Student-loan debt can be staggering for those just starting out," he says. "Starting your life off after college isn't easy, especially here in the Bay Area, where the cost of living is high."

Data from the Plan Sponsor Council of America suggests that new grads are feeling the financial pinch in that region and well beyond. A recent study from the group found 69 percent of students graduating college in 2011 and 2012 borrowed money to finance their educations, compared to 49 percent of 1992 and 1993 college graduates.

In introducing its Student Loan Repayment program in 2015, Nvidia wanted to help its youngest workers settle these debts, and start off their careers on the right financial foot.

Designed to help employees repay student loans up to $30,000, the program is open to all full- or part-time employees who have graduated within the past three years and are working 20 or more hours per week and provides monthly reimbursement up to $500 or the worker's monthly payment amount, whichever is less.

Applicable to various types of loans -- Federal Perkins loans, private student loans and subsidized Stafford loans, for instance -- the repayment program also helps employees who go back to school for an advanced degree.

Davidson describes the effort as a "bridge program" geared toward helping recent grads transition to work.

"This kind of assistance might help them get started in an apartment, put a down payment on a car, and get themselves situated and ready to work," he says. "It's one less stressor to worry about."

So far, close to 100 employees -- about 85 percent of those eligible -- have taken advantage of this benefit. The program also offers workers up to $5,250 each year for qualified job-related education expenses, including tuition and books, when they earn a grade of "B" or higher in their courses. Nvidia also pays for eligible employees to complete an engineering master's degree through the Stanford Center for Professional Development.

Nvidia has also found the program to be an effective recruiting tool when trying to attract young candidates, says Davidson, adding that applicants have frequently inquired about the benefit in job interviews since the program was rolled out in 2015.

"We're recruiting the best and brightest engineers. These students have a lot of opportunities in front of them, and we see this as a way to differentiate ourselves."

The loan is one of several offerings the company introduced during the November 2015 open enrollment period. As the Nvidia benefits team considered potential new benefits in the months leading up to last November, "our first thought was that we wanted to make it easier for our employees to live their best life," says Andrea Trudelle, global benefits director.

"First, we considered our demographics," says Trudelle, noting that the organization's workforce is comprised of roughly 20 percent millennial-age employees, 63 percent Generation Xers and 17 percent baby boomers.

"When we talked to millennials, for example, we learned what they were struggling with, including the price of their student-loan debt. We wanted to help them solve that problem" by implementing the student-loan reimbursement program.

Meanwhile, many Gen X workers -- many of whom are approaching middle age and caring for both young children and aging parents -- may be stressed by maintaining this juggling act. In response, Nvidia rolled out a program, in conjunction with care.com, designed to aid workers in finding babysitters and caregivers. 

Although many Gen X-age employees have taken advantage of this offering, Trudelle points out that Nvidia does not track the utilization of its benefit programs by age group. And, while benefits such as the aforementioned student-loan debt repayment program may be geared toward young, not-far-removed from college-age employees, the rationale behind the host of benefits the company recently introduced were developed as part of an overall benefits approach that Trudelle is hopeful offers something for everyone at Nvidia. 

"We want to take a [benefits] approach," she says, "that allows us to serve all of our [9,200] employees."

Cutting Commuting Costs

Nvidia employees are spread across more than 40 locations, in cities such as Austin, Texas and Seattle, where many have "long commute times, upwards of one hour each way in some cases," says Davidson.

Traveling that sort of distance several times a week adds up, taking a toll on employees' wallets and overall well-being. To help ease the burden, some companies such as Nvidia have begun to offer commuter benefits to workers.

While commuter benefits are certainly not new, "the definition of commuter benefits seems to be expanding, and companies are getting more creative," says Nate Randall, president and founder of San Jose, Calif.-based Ursa Major Consulting.

"Commuter benefits could be 'traditional,' with the company providing money for public transit, but some are starting to package it with mileage reimbursement, and/or help with carpooling or shuttles, for example."

Nvidia has taken the latter approach, partnering with San Mateo, Calif.-based WageWorks to offer employees the opportunity to enroll in a commuter spending account that pays for monthly parking passes or transit and vanpool expenses up to $255 per month (for 2016) with pre-tax dollars. Employees purchasing a monthly transit pass also receive a $100 monthly subsidy from Nvidia. The cost of the pass is automatically deducted from the worker's paycheck, minus the subsidy.

Nvidia also offers ride services, working with the facilities team at its Santa Clara headquarters to ensure regularly scheduled shuttle service from local bus stations, for example.

Like many of the benefits the company has introduced in recent years, the idea for the commuter spending account blossomed out of conversations between HR and employees, says Davidson. 

"We're always talking to employees about benefits," he says, noting that annual Nvidia employee surveys include multiple benefits-related questions.

"But instead of just staying holed up in our little spot on campus, our benefits team is also continuously meeting with employees in places where they gather, like the cafeteria," he says, adding that "Popcorn Thursdays" offer employees a weekly chance to enjoy free popcorn while providing in-person feedback on their benefits to the Nvidia HR team and the organization's Cigna representative. 

During such discussions, Davidson and his colleagues in HR have heard "many employees [express] concern about their commute times, and their ability to get to and from work on time.

"We looked at this as a program to help get cars off the road, and to help keep employees happy by making their commutes simpler and less expensive," says Davidson, adding that Nvidia has seen a 300-percent increase in the number of employees taking advantage of the benefit since the beginning of 2016. "Now, [stress over their commutes] is one less thing they have to think about at work."

Offering Protection

A more unusual benefit for Nvidia employees is meant to ease stress from another source: identity theft.

Recent statistics suggest that more employees will experience ID theft, with the Federal Trade Commission ranking identity theft as the No. 1 consumer complaint for 15 consecutive years. The FTC estimates that 19 people become victims of identity theft every minute.

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Considering the "huge distraction" of having one's identity stolen, "it makes sense" to offer identity theft protection to employees, says Joe Ellis, senior vice president at CBIZ Benefits & Insurance Services Inc. in Plymouth Meeting, Pa.

"And, given the increasing frequency of [identity theft], the time spent dealing with all the [attendant] issues invariably has an impact on productivity," says Ellis.

Helping workers avoid these considerable headaches was the impetus for the identity theft protection service that Nvidia now offers employees.

Provided by Framingham, Mass.-based IdentityForce, Nvidia employees are automatically enrolled in no-cost identity theft protection services through IdentityForce, which monitors users' personal information and notifies individuals of suspicious activity. Employees can also enroll children under 18 for no-cost coverage, and have the option to purchase coverage for other adult family members as well.

"For a victim of identity theft, it takes considerable time and money to clean it up," says Davidson. "We take measures to protect customers' data, so this seems like a natural progression of that."

Davidson, who worked closely with Nvidia's legal and security teams to select a vendor, continues to partner with IdentityForce to address employee questions about services, costs and so on.

From an employer perspective, "it's comforting to know that [all of our employees are] covered with this service," he says. "Dealing with something like identity theft takes time away from employees -- time away from family and time away from work."

Ongoing Evaluation

In the 10 months since Nvidia rolled out the ID theft protection service to all employees, 10 percent of employees have opted to enroll additional family members, and 25 percent have enrolled in free credit monitoring.

While such numbers portend success for the new program, Davidson and his colleagues in HR still keep close tabs on what benefits are working and which ones aren't.

Take, for example, the aforementioned initiative that assists workers in finding babysitters and caregivers at home.

During a benefits team meeting, however, "we noticed that enrollment in that program was relatively low," says Davidson. "We realized that this program wasn't where we need it to be."

HR quickly arranged to bring care.com representatives on campus the following month to share details of the program with Nvidia workers. HR also worked with the corporate communications team to promote the program via email and on the home page of the Nvidia benefits site, as part of a larger redesign that also made the site accessible to employees' family members.

Davidson and the benefits team also re-evaluated how they promote benefits offerings to workers beyond the company intranet.

"We focus on different programs throughout the year," says Davidson, "looking at statistics and usage, and, subsequently, developing communication campaigns highlighting a different program each month."

Nvidia also replaced its annual benefits fair -- "where 40 or 50 vendors would come on campus and give away stress balls," says Davidson -- with monthly events comprised of several vendors that the company is considering to provide new or expanded benefits.

For example, the company is currently focused on broadening its Stanford Health Navigator Services program, which affords employees around-the-clock access to Stanford University health staff for help with scheduling medical appointments, coordinating specialist visits and connecting with healthcare institutions around the world for consultation.

In addition, "we're looking to extend the program to provide experts in a variety of fields to NVIDIA retirees," to offer assistance with life, health and retirement savings, says Davidson.

Ultimately, he says, delivering such guidance to employees, past and present, "is key to our benefits strategy, which is to look at and implement programs that make life easier for our people."

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