For the last twenty years, the Society for Human Resource Management has produced a detailed annual survey on employee benefits. It gives businesses insight on how to change the benefits lineup to help attract and retain employees without breaking the compensation budget.

Their survey is comprehensive, covering everything from office kitchens (93 percent of companies have a kitchen or breakroom) to paid foster-child leave (offered by 13 percent of companies). It was based on the responses of 3,490 people who were randomly selected from SHRM’s membership. The respondents skewed more toward small companies than average, with 46 percent of those coming from companies with 1 to 99 employees. No surprise, since those in the survey belong to a professional organization, that 88 percent reported that their employer paid for professional memberships.

If you’re thinking of making changes to your employee benefits, there are few insights among the 88 pages of tables and analysis that can help you attract and retain employees, stay current with your offerings, and experiment with newer benefits that might be of interest to your staff.

Getting on the benefits bleeding edge

Many employers want to add those little extra benefits that show that they are forward-thinking – or at least willing to make life for employees a little easier. Some low-cost add-on benefits don’t involve the big problems of life and death, but they can be a nice way to show employees that they are appreciated – which, in turn, can increase engagement and slow turnover.

Some of the more unusual, lower-cost benefits in the survey – benefits that respondents expect to increase in the coming years – include community volunteer programs, company organized fitness challenges or competitions, CPR and first-aid training, credit counseling, onsite massage therapy, and standing desks.

Benefits help create good workers

A key finding in this year’s survey is that two-thirds of respondents felt that attracting and retaining full-time talent was a serious problem. The U.S. economy may not be growing as quickly as we would like, but the financial crisis is over. Thousands of new jobs have been created every month since October of 2010. Employees can be particular, and employers may not be able to find the exact match for an opening.

If that’s the case at your organization, consider using retention, sign-on, or referral bonuses. SHRM’s survey showed that all of these have increased in the last year. In fact, 23 percent of companies now offer sign-on bonuses. Giving people extra cash can help solve the immediate problem of filling a position without adding to long-run payroll costs.

Beyond that, you may want to consider increasing training and development. Companies will cut back on training in tough times, but they need to add it when business improves. Of the companies in the survey, 59 percent reported that job applicants had basic skills and knowledge shortfalls, and another 84 percent found a shortage of people with applied skills. Offering your own training can help improve the skills of new hires. Even better, it can be used to give current employees new skills so that they can be promoted. This allows you to build your workforce and build team loyalty.

In fact, employee development is a benefit that has grown in popularity. A full 88 percent of companies offer professional membership benefits, something important to SHRM, and that’s up from 65 percent in 1996. In addition, 86 percent provide professional development benefits of any type, and another 42 percent offer cross-training of skills not directly related to current job categories. Other benefits in this category include career counseling, mentoring, and executive coaching.

Using benefits to compete for workers

As a business owner, you may have been out of the job market for a while. You may not know what companies are doing these days. That’s one of the beauties of this report. Because it has been in existence for 20 years, SHRM has enough data to show significant changes. And, over the past 20 years, five benefits showed large increases in availability and are offered by more than half of the companies in the survey: professional memberships (88 percent), professional development (86 percent), wellness programs (72 percent), telecommuting (60 percent), and flextime (54 percent).

If you’re not offering these, you probably should. Telecommuting and flextime may be difficult to fit into your particular business, but they may not be impossible with some creative effort – especially on a part-time basis or during certain times of the year.

Happy workers, happy bosses

As the economy continues to heat up and change, employers have to find ways to keep employees happy. They also need to set a tone from the top that innovation and reward doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. Some thoughtfulness can go a long way toward becoming an employer of choice – and it will help your company be in good shape for the next business cycle.