Confessions of a benefits manager: Candid’s professional development


I cannot think of another time when this has happened: Big Bad Boss has offered to pay for some continued professional development training for me. Great, but I worry that it means he thinks I am getting out of date. It is a bit like being offered a seat on a train: lovely, but is it because I look pregnant? It does not help that Big Bad Boss suggests taking a benefit module that Smarmy Consulting has set up for ‘more experienced’ professionals. That could be read either way.

When I get there, a quick look round the room confirms my fears; it is certainly a more seasoned group of attendees. Crinkly even. We gather round a coffee machine, making the most of the freebies on offer, and I say hello to another delegate, Barry. Are you an actuary? The man stabs his finger at me as he asks. No, actually I’m a benefits manager, I say. Barry scoffs and tells me he has discovered he is the only qualified actuary in the room. I can see I am meant to be impressed. Gosh.

Simon, one of the Smarmy consultants, rescues me and promptly asks me what I am working on right now. I don’t know if you have noticed, but consultants from the big firms always ask you that. My tip is this: be very careful what you say. If you reply that you are working on a benefits benchmarking exercise, you will find yourself listening to a sales pitch on Smarmy benefits market data. If, on the other hand, you mention a health insurance review, you will be bored by tales of their re-broking team. Benefits, I tell him firmly, sure that will give him too little to go on. Still, Simon has a lot to say about Smarmy’s general benefits capability. I am relieved when another consultant hustles us into the training room to get started.

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Advanced benefits training

During this day, they tell us, we will cover several aspects of advanced benefits: international mobility, global pensions, and multi-national pooling. Yes, I know that, it was on the booking form.

I wonder if I should have ticked the webinar option instead. I love the idea of webinars; how much more efficient to sit at your desk rather than travel across town to watch a rather tired presentation given by an even more tired trainer. I often look wistfully at the list of courses offered by digital trainers, but there is one big problem: I cannot do them. My willpower is unequal to the task of sitting through the tedium of a recorded message about benefits.

Even if a webinar is live, there is the unbearable temptation to minimise the screen and open another, more interesting window. Besides, it is a good opportunity to escape and do a bit of networking. Sadly, the only contacts I have made so far today are a Smarmy salesman and the-only-actuary-in-the-room.

Disappointing content

By the break, the trainer has only talked about what we are going to cover after the break. It is disappointing when this day has cost my company hundreds of pounds. I look round the room, counting the number of delegates and multiplying by the delegate fee. You can take the girl away from her analysis but you cannot take analysis away from the girl. This girl thinks they will make a tidy profit for very little information.

During the break I am monopolised by Simon again. It is not fair to use delegates as captive sales targets. There is a rather good-looking guy from another company near the biscuits, but I cannot get near him (or the shortbread) before we are moved back into the training room.

International benefits

Finally, we are introduced to some actual content: international mobility. The trainer tells us that often companies decide to open an office in another country, and then they may decide to send an executive overseas. Really. Until now, I have resisted looking at my phone, but this is just too basic. Even when it gets a bit more technical after someone asks about hypothetical tax, the explanation is woolly and I do not feel I’ve learnt anything.

We move on to international pensions. The-only-actuary-in-the-room perks up a bit then, but the rest of us are on snooze. I glance over at the only-good-looking-man-in-the-room and I am thrilled when he actually looks back with a smile. Now I can hardly wait for lunch.

We are given stale sandwiches – not what I expected given the fee – but I can hardly eat anyway as I am chatting with my new friend. I just nibble a breadstick and try to look elegant about it. We both work for technology companies, and he suggests we connect on LinkedIn. I am thrilled, and it was worth coming just for that. Is he really just interested in comparing benefits, I wonder?

Multi-national pooling

After lunch, we are treated to an overview of international pooling. The trainer describes how insurance policies are grouped together to benefit from the shared risk, and they show the usual example calculation resulting in a dividend. Despite the fact I have managed pooling for work, and I certainly follow the maths in the example, I still do not actually get where the money comes from. I mean: the total claims experience will be the same, with the same cost to suppliers, but somehow we all buy into the idea that a dividend just magically appears.

I would love to find someone to explain properly, owning up to a volume discount generated perhaps, but it is not going to happen today. If I ask, I could look an idiot in front of a room full of peers and condescending actuaries. Benefits is such a small world, it seems likely I could end up working with, or even for, any of these people. I just nod and try to look interested.

Next time… Candid is dragged into health and safety.