An investment in staff development can be a potent attraction and retention tool. Employees and applicants alike want to grow and advance, which means learning and development are no longer optional; they're a must-have component of the employee value proposition.
For businesses large and small, access to massive online learning platforms has made upskilling employees (and even candidates) an attainable goal. Walmart, for example, has found success with a learning program that's both accessible and substantive — and all for, apparently, $1 a day from employees.
The program offers access to online degree programs through the University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University. Walmart and Sam’s Club employees enjoy discounted tuition and books, plus access to a coach who helps them navigate the process. The program is open to full- and part-time staffers who have worked for the company for more than 90 days.
Walking the talk
Walmart, which has more than 2 million employees, opened its 100th employee training center in 2017. The company has upskilled tens of thousands of staffers in the last three years in a deliberate commitment to learning, but "employees wanted more," according to Erica Jones, senior manager communications of Walmart. "They asked for more educational opportunities to return to or start school, but time and debt were an issue," she told HR Dive.
The program aims to alleviate those concerns, she said, putting education within everyone’s reach. Employees are asked to pay only $1 a day — less than the cost of a single semester. The response has been strong, according to the company; at the end of May, only two months into the program, employees had scheduled almost 30,000 appointments with its partner, Guild Education, to discuss education options. More than 2,000 have already submitted their finalized forms to schools.
Some employees will start their programs this month, but start dates will be staggered so as not to overwhelm the schools. The first degrees available will be business and supply chain management, and from those, Walmart will determine whether to expand into other disciplines.
"Walmart’s investment has kicked off what might be the most scalable solution to increasing access to higher education," Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, told HR Dive via email. "At the same time, a growing body of research shows Walmart is making a smart business decision by investing in the growth and development of their frontline associates."
Relevance and growth
This change in perspective is happening elsewhere, too. "We’ve seen a shift from tuition reimbursement being an entitlement benefit to being a talent tool," Chris Duchesne, group vice president at EdAssist, a tuition assistance management company, told HR Dive.
Companies are shifting from the old paradigms, where degree programs were highly focused on advanced degree programming, like MBAs, and are instead looking at a broader range of options, from certifications to bootcamps and more, he said. "The change is exciting for employees, and it’s creating ‘talent pool’ employers."
Educational opportunities have changed right along with labor market demands, Duchesne said. "It’s an opportunity to expand what’s covered and rebrand programs," he said, "to move from tuition assistance to education assistance, to expand how people think about it and how they can use it to create continuing opportunities for their own development."
Education benefits aren't just for younger workers, either, Duchesne said. While millennials may be dictating the growth potential they expect, opportunities for others also are being expanded. Seasoned employees who have great value to the company are updating their skills. "Take a 15 or 20 year marketing veteran and bootcamp them in digital marketing," he said. "That boosts their skills and value to the company. Internal candidates offer knowledge job seekers cannot."
Open for all
Walmart, likewise, says its program is open to everyone. "Whoever applies to the Dollar a Day program," Jones said, "we will find them a spot at one of the universities." The company believes the investment in staff will help with retention, but it says there are no strings attached. "We want them to grow their potential," Jones said, "but they’re not on the hook to pay us back, even if they leave the company."
Programs like these could even bring businesses to a wider range of candidates. For applicants looking to get a college degree but not interested in amassing huge debt, a path to a nearly free degree could be tempting, tipping the scales in the company’s favor.
Rebranding is key
It’s one thing to make programming available to employees, but reaching out to encourage them to participate is the newest evolution in employee education, Duchesne said.
Be specific as you rebrand talent development, he suggested; identify skill groups, then present employees with clear opportunities and pathways.
"Offer paths with specific details of where they could lead," Duchesne added. And the payoff can be clearly articulated; the company's data shows that for those employees who complete programming, roughly 60% are offered a promotion or new opportunity within the organization.
Planning for success
The choice to prioritize employee development has to be well-planned and intentional, Jones said — and it has to fit the needs of employees to be successful. "We were looking for programing that focused on the needs of working learners and for degree completion success rates," she explained. "The teams we chose had to have the bona fides to back those up."
In a tight candidate market, where passive recruitment techniques won't fly and poaching has become common practice, it's important to ensure staff have the tools they need for today and the future.
"A successful, well-trained, and engaged workforce is a competitive advantage for any company," Carlson said. "By developing employees through university partnerships, employers like Walmart also have the potential to transform the way Americans access education."