Walmart kicked off its annual Shareholders Week by announcing a new series of education benefits for its workers, including a program that allows them to pursue a college degree at a cost of $1 a day.
As part of a new partnership with Guild Education, Walmart will subsidize the cost of college education, beyond financial aid and an associate contribution, of about $1 a day. Degrees in business or supply chain management will be offered through the University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University—schools that Walmart said were selected for their focus on serving adult learners, and would have curriculums tailored to relevant skills for jobs and advancement across industries. Workers at all U.S. stores and in Walmart’s supply chain are eligible.
Walmart also said workers can now receive college credit for on-the-job training through its established Walmart Academy program, which enables associates to earn up to 20 college credits from related Academy work, said Drew Holler, VP of associate experience for Walmart.
The initiatives come as competition to attract and retain employees intensifies amid low unemployment, but they also speak to the value of an engaged and educated workforce becoming a differentiator in a retail world that's increasingly influenced by sophisticated technology and better customer experiences.
This was a prevailing theme among a series of executives who addressed the crowd of 4,400 company associates, who gathered in a basketball arena in Fayetteville, Ark., on Wednesday during Walmart’s U.S. Associates meeting.
Walmart U.S. CEO Greg Foran, who has championed the retailer's turnaround behind standard processes known as “One Best Way,” also urged workers to approach those tasks with “creativity, flair and heart.”
“Of all the things I worry about on this journey from fixing to leading, it’s our ability to get past this transition point, to do the little bit extra it's going to take to lead on all fronts,” Foran said. “One Best Way is really solid. But the magic is being able to add your creative flair.”
In a separate presentation, Holler said the college program provides the next step from proprietary training programs established in the past few years at Walmart—including Pathways, a program for workers new to the company, and the Academy program—while addressing the cost of education in a way to make it vastly more accessible.
“We think the education industry is ripe for some sort of disruption,” said Holler. “We think there’s an epidemic in the U.S. with student loan debt, and we think we have an opportunity. … We have a million associates [who] have this idea that they’d like to get an education but they don’t know how. Now, they can afford it.”
Holler declined to discuss the cost to Walmart of launching the program, but made a straightforward business case for it.
“We think our associates in our stores are a competitive advantage, and the more engaged they are and more confident they are ... the better our customer service is going to be, and the better business is going to be,” he said. “What we’re finding is there will probably be a subset of associates that are going to take advantage of this. We’ll find they will be more engaged, have better retention and be better at customer service. But there’s also a lot of associates who won’t take advantage of it; but that can be an advantage as well, because they are proud to work for a company that would offer a program like this. … We think there’s a halo effect.”
Guild Education is an education benefits platform that links the business and academic fields.
“Walmart has kicked off what might be the nation’s most scalable approach to creating educational opportunity for America’s workforce, now available to its U.S. associates and their families,” Guild co-founder and CEO Rachel Carlson said. “Walmart is also leading innovation at the intersection of workforce development and higher education by helping associates earn college credit for their on-the-job training.”