Photo credit: <a href="http://www.freedigitalphotos.net/images/view_photog.php?photogid=1152">jscreationzs</a>

A significant number of U.S. employers that still offer defined benefit pension plans say they remain committed to providing those benefits to new salaried employees, according to a survey by global professional services company Towers Watson.

The survey also found that employers are adding features to their defined contribution (DC) plans that mirror DB design to help close possible savings gaps created by the shift from DB to DC plans.

The Towers Watson survey, based on responses from 424 midsize and large employers with DB plans, found that more than two-thirds (68%) of respondents that currently offer a DB plan to new salaried employees remain committed to offering a DB to new hires over the next two to three years. Just over one-third (36%) of respondents currently offer a DB plan to new employees.

The survey also found that support for DB plans is strongest at companies that cover the most participants: Among the largest 10th percentile of respondents, 45% still offer a DB plan to new hires.

“Several factors including low interest rates, falling equity values, a deep economic recession with uneven recovery, and regulatory and legislative uncertainty have made sponsoring DB plans less attractive to employers over the past decade,” says Alan Glickstein, a senior retirement consultant at Towers Watson. “Yet, despite a vastly changed landscape for retirement plans, the fact that many employers remain committed to DB plans is encouraging, especially since it is more difficult for employees to rely on a DC plan as an effective stand-alone retirement plan.”

When asked why they are committed to offering a DB plan to new hires, more than seven in 10 (71%) respondents cited promoting employee attraction and retention as the key reason, followed by maintaining employee morale, cited by 50% of respondents. The survey noted that only one-fourth of respondents with active DB plans are not firmly committed to their DB plan, and a small percentage (7%) plan to close or freeze their plan over the next two to three years.

The survey also found that employers — recognizing the need to help employees save for and feel more secure about retirement — are adding features to their DC plans that mirror features of DB plans. For example, nearly six in 10 (59%) respondents use automatic enrollment, and about half of those have implemented automatic escalation, which typically increases the employee contribution annually.

Additionally, while virtually all employers offer at least a matching contribution to DC plan participants, more employers (42% now versus 33% in 2007) are providing non-matching contributions.