Walmart is teaming up with Denver-based startup Guild Education to offer employees the chance to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business or supply-chain management. (Photo by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Walmart offers employees new perk: cheap access to college

NEW YORK — Walmart is offering its employees a new perk: affordable access to a college degree.

America’s largest private employer, which in the past has helped its workers get their high school or equivalency degree, hopes the new benefit will help it recruit and retain higher quality entry-level employees in a tight U.S. labour market.

The company is teaming up with Denver-based startup Guild Education to offer employees the chance to obtain a bachelor’s degree in business or supply-chain management. It will cost a dollar a day at one of three non-profit universities with online programs that have had success working with adult learners: the University of Florida, Brandman University and Bellevue University. It plans to eventually expand to more types of degrees.

It will also offer college-prep classes for workers who need extra help. Walmart is subsidizing the cost of tuition, books and fees, eliminating the need for student loans.

Both full-time and part-time workers who have been with the company at least 90 days will be able to qualify, Walmart said. About 68,000 of Walmart’s 1.4 million U.S. employees are expected to enrol in the first five years, based on interest from its workers, said Julie Murphy, executive vice-president of people at Bentonville, Arkansas-based Walmart.

The move underscores how retailers and restaurant chains are under increasing pressure to improve the skills of their entry-level workers at a time when their jobs are getting more complicated due to the rise of online shopping, steeper competition from Amazon and more demanding shoppers.

The partnership with Guild Education, which was founded in 2015, goes beyond Walmart’s current program covering the cost of workers and eligible family members for earning a high school diploma or GED equivalent. The company also grooms managers at its Walmart Training Academy, and has a career program for entry level workers.

Guild Education works with other national chains, including Chipotle Mexican Grill, Taco Bell and Lowe’s, on their employee education programs. But Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, says its partnership with Walmart is unique in several ways, including its low upfront costs.

Walmart’s move puts it in the league of Starbucks, which three years ago began offering four years of tuition for an online college degree from Arizona State University.

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