Walmart offers free college tuition to 1.5 million employees as companies push perks in battle for workers

·4 min read
A Walmart store (Getty Images)
A Walmart store (Getty Images)

Walmart is offering free college tuition and books to its 1.5 million US employees, a sign that the retail giant is serious about attracting and retaining workers during the post-pandemic labour shortage.

The US’s largest private employer announced the scheme on Tuesday, saying that it will invest nearly $1bn over the next five years in career training and development programs.

Under the company’s Live Better U (LBU) education programme, both full-time and part-time associates will be encouraged to pursue majors in high-demand fields such as supply chain, business administration, and cybersecurity.

Previously, employees at its Walmart and Sam’s Club brands would pay $1 per day to participate, but that fee will be removed from 16 August.

“We are creating a path of opportunity for our associates to grow their careers at Walmart,” Lorraine Stomski, the company’s senior vice president of learning and leadership, said during a call with reporters.

“This investment is another way we can support our associates to pursue their passion and purpose while removing the barriers that too often keep adult working learners from obtaining degrees.”

The LBU education programme was created three years ago to help employees advance within the company without the burden of college debt.

Workers can choose from 10 academic partners, including the University of Arizona, the University of Denver, Purdue University Global, and Southern New Hampshire University.

Since 2018, more than 52,000 employees have participated and 8,000 have graduated through the scheme. Some 28,000 associates have been active in the programme this summer.

“Our education offerings tie directly to our growth areas at Walmart, and what better way to fill the pipeline of future talent than with our own associates,” Ms Stomski said.

Walmart is not alone in offering incentives to retain and hire workers in what is a particularly tight labour market.

While some companies have simply raised salaries to help alleviate the problem of struggling to fill vacancies, many others have rolled out signing bonuses and free gifts as part of an enhanced employment package.

Some firms have rolled out or enhanced their childcare offering. More have taken into account the flexibility with hours that many potential employees value so much.

Companies have also adapted hiring procedures to act faster when recruiting new people with it now not uncommon for offers to be made on the spot or within days of an initial interview, rather than after multiple interviews.

Indeed working conditions, pay, and the length of shifts or workdays have been brought sharply into focus for many companies, no longer in a position to dictate terms to employees.

In addition to one-off bonuses, tight labour market conditions have created upward pressure on wages in sectors that traditionally pay close to the minimum wage.

The US federal minimum wage was increased to $7.25 per hour on 24 July, 2009. It has not moved since.

One tool used by employers from larger corporations down to family-run restaurants is the signing bonus.

In an interview with CNN, Ann Elizabeth Konkel, an economist at job search site Indeed, noted that a hiring bonus is a one-time cost to an employer, and can be dropped once positions are filled.

She notes that the generosity of these bonuses can vary enormously, citing two recent nursing positions that were advertised, one with a signing bonus of $100, another with one of $30,000.

Earlier this year, Amazon announced plans to hire 75,000 people in fulfilment and transportation jobs with sign-on bonuses of up to $1,000 in many locations.

The trend is even evident in sectors in which you may not usually see such action on the part of employers — Junior’s Restaurants in New York City is offering a $250 sign-on bonus to counter customer service employees who remain employed at the restaurant for at least 30 days.

One Off Hospitality in Chicago offered a $300 signing bonus; a Mexican restaurant in Fort Lauderdale would pay $400 to new employees; and a Lebanese restaurant in Philadelphia offered new hires $2,000.

Similarly, a job posting for a driving instructor in New York City was advertised with a $1,500 signing bonus.

The Wall Street Journal reported at the beginning of the month that almost 20 per cent of all jobs posted ZipRecruiter in June offered a signing bonus. In March that figure was two per cent.

Many of these jobs are for hourly workers making between $16.50 and $25 an hour — some less. Bonuses of $1,000 hiring bonus were advertised on jobs listed for apartment-complex groundskeepers in Texas, movers in Florida, cabinet makers in Georgia, housekeepers in Wisconsin, pool cleaners in New Mexico, and welders in Ohio, the outlet reported.

Some signing bonuses are paid incrementally in order to keep new hires on the job, with the total amount paying out over up to three months in some cases.

Cash incentives are also now more common for referrals, with bonuses also paid to staff who recommend new hires. A branch of one fast-food franchise allegedly paid people to show up for interviews.

Beyond direct monetary incentives, there are plenty of anecdotes online of employers offering gift cards, games consoles, and in one case cellphones to new hires.

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