In 2019, Nick Smith graduated with $50,000 worth of debt — $30,000 in student loans and $20,000 with a student line of credit.

Low-paying jobs and a high cost of living made it hard for Smith to make a dent on his debt until he got hired as a mechanical technologist in Halifax at Dillon Consulting Limited.  

In April 2021, Smith received an email from his employer asking if he’d be interested in a student debt repayment program. His answer was a resounding “yes.”

Dillon Consulting has been working with YR Plans Inc.’s Smart Benefit program to help some of their employees pay down their student debt, and officially made the program available to staff in February 2022. Smith has been part of the program since its inception at the company. 

For companies providing debt repayment support, the goal is to improve the well-being of employees dealing with the stress of student loans. Some companies say there’s a major perk for employers too – the benefit helps attract and retain employees.

At Dillon Consulting, employees can repay student debt by using employer contributions to the company’s deferred profit-sharing plan that matches employee contributions to the group registered retirement savings plan. 

“Employees can contribute to their Registered Retirement Savings Plan (RRSP), and then take the deferred profit sharing plan (DPSP) match and put it towards paying down their student debt,” said Tanya Cross, partner at Dillon Consulting. 

“Listening to our employees, we have learned that the stress that student loans can cause impacts overall well-being," Cross said, adding that Dillon is confident the ability to "gain control of their finances" creates a better environment for its workers.

Dierdre Getty, director of communications and content for YR Plans, said Smart Benefit was founded in 2019 to help young workers with student debt achieve better long-term financial outcomes while addressing employer retention needs. 

With Smart Benefit, employees never touch the funds themselves, whether they’re receiving it as a percentage of their savings plan contributions, a stand-alone benefit or in a payment matching plan. Instead, all payments go from payroll to YR Plans to the loan provider.

Currently, five companies are offering the Smart Benefit, and two to three more will be onboarded before 2023, Getty said. 

In July 2021, it was announced that Sun Life Financial Inc. would be partnering with YR Plans to perform a pilot of the Smart Benefit with a select number of groups that wanted to take part in the program.

The pilot officially began in October 2021 and is expected to wrap at the end of September 2022. 

A spokesperson for Sun Life told The Canadian Press that the company will not continue offering the benefit after the pilot ends. 

"After evaluating our pilot, we have decided to focus our efforts on strengthening existing solutions and our core products, helping clients achieve lifetime financial security,” the spokesperson said in an email statement. 

While YR Plan’s Smart Benefit technology works by sending money directly to the lender, tech company SimplyCast has been helping employees pay down student loans by adding monthly financial support to their paycheques since early 2016.

President and CEO Saeed El-Darahali said he initially launched the program because he graduated with close to $60,000 in debt and wished he had some repayment support at the time.

For those interested in participating, the company uses a formula weighing the employee’s salary and loan amount to determine how much the company will add to their paycheque each month for the purposes of repaying the loan. 

The formula also takes major expenses into account and can filter out candidates that way. For instance, an employee who owed $10,000 and was living at home did not meet the criteria for support because it appeared that they had the ability to pay off the loan on their own. That’s a rare example, though, he said. 

“So far, everybody that’s been on the program has not left the company. So it’s been a retention program,” he added.

Depending on the formula, employees can receive monthly loan repayment contributions ranging from $40 to $1000 a month. 

Amanda Hudson, founder of A Modern Way to Work, an HR consultancy, said she sees benefit trends like this pop up from time to time. 

But, when it comes to its effects, she doesn’t think most people are “making or breaking their decisions on where they work or if they stay based on RRSP matching or contributions to their student loans.”

“What I do think it’s good for strategically is if you’re targeting a large amount of new graduates. I think a lot of these benefits are employer branding opportunities for people to differentiate themselves from a different company on the surface.”

However, if the goal is attraction and retention, Hudson doesn’t think these peripheral benefits hold as much sway as strong managers and HR systems, high engagement and fair market salaries. 

Referencing Gallup’s employee engagement survey, Hudson said what retains employees most is engagement factors, which include knowing what’s expected of you at work, receiving recognition or praise for good work within the last seven days, and having opportunities at work to learn and grow, for example. 

From Smith’s perspective, the program has enticed him to stay longer at Dillon Consulting than he might have otherwise. 

Initially, he expected to take 13 years to finish paying for his loans.

“I would have been over 40 years old by the time my student debt was paid off. It was looking pretty grim and I wasn’t really thinking about whether I was going to buy a house or a car or have children because it’s difficult to consider those things with so much debt,” Smith said. 

After enrolling in the program, that repayment time dropped to five years.

“There’s a light at the end of the tunnel now, which is comforting and alleviates some of that money stress.”