Walmart said it would pay tuition for its workers to enroll in college courses, online or on campus, to earn degrees in business or supply chain management.
The New York Times
By Michael Corkery
May 30, 2018
Walmart announced plans on Wednesday to offer subsidized college tuition for its 1.4 million workers in the United States, joining a growing list of companies that are helping employees pay for higher education as a perk in a tight labor market.
The giant retailer will pay tuition for its workers to enroll in college courses — online or on campus — to earn degrees in either supply chain management or business, company officials announced at Walmart’s annual shareholder meeting in Bentonville, Ark.
Full- and part-time Walmart workers can use the subsidy to take courses at the University of Florida; Brandman University in Irvine, Calif.; and Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb.
The three universities were chosen because of their high graduation rates, particularly among part-time students, and their experience with those already in the work force, Walmart executives said. The employees will not be obligated to continue working for Walmart after they get their degrees, and must put up only $1 a day toward the cost of classes.
“We feel like this is another step forward in investing in our associates,” said Julie Murphy, an executive vice president in Walmart’s United States operation.
Walmart, the country’s largest employer, introduced the tuition subsidy as it seeks ways to retain workers at a time of low unemployment. Employers like Starbucks and Amazon also offer tuition support.
Walmart, which has faced criticism over low pay and poor working conditions, is also trying to burnish its image while expanding its presence in more upscale markets online.
This year, Walmart raised its base wage $2, to $11 an hour, and expanded its maternity and family leave benefits. The company has also begun offering lower-level store managers more job training programs called “Walmart Academies,” where employees learn basic management skills and graduate in ceremonies wearing caps and gowns.
Thom Arnold, 32, who has been working at Walmart since high school, said he would “love to take advantage” of the tuition subsidy.
Mr. Arnold, who was chosen by his store in Staunton, Va., to attend the shareholder meeting, said he would like to pursue a career in cybersecurity.
“I’d like to advance into something bigger,” he said.
Activists groups — including Organization United for Respect Walmart, which was staging demonstrations in Bentonville through the week — argue that the company should raise hourly wages to at least $15, a figure that Walmart’s rival Target has committed to. Another group, Making Change at Walmart, a project affiliated with the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said it was skeptical of Walmart’s promises and pointed out that the company had announced its wage increases the same day that word spread of the planned closing of 63 Sam’s Club stores.
“At best, if this is more than a publicity stunt, then Walmart is merely playing catch-up to other multibillion-dollar companies when it comes to providing benefits to its workers,” the group’s director, Randy Parraz, said in a statement.
Walmart officials did not provide an estimated cost for the tuition subsidy, but they expected that about 68,000 employees would probably enroll during the first five years, based on those who have expressed interest and an analysis of similar programs in other industries.
The University of Florida is probably the best known of the universities in the Walmart program. Brandman University, which has multiple campuses in California and an online curriculum, has a focus on Hispanic students. The billionaire investor Joe Ricketts, who founded TD Ameritrade, is among Bellevue University’s benefactors.
Walmart said its goal was to help employees obtain a college degree without having to take out loans. Walmart workers enrolled in the program would not be required to pay for their education upfront and seek reimbursement later. When Starbucks first announced its tuition subsidy and a partnership with Arizona State University in 2014, the company was criticized for pushing the risk onto its workers by making them pay up front.
Walmart workers will qualify for the benefit after 90 days of employment and will not be penalized if they leave the company before finishing their studies.
The tuition subsidy will apply only to associate and bachelor’s degrees in two programs that are somewhat related to retail work, but the areas of study could be expanded to other areas in the future, Walmart officials said.