Walmart Will Pay for Employees’ College

When it comes to employer brand, Walmart does not have the best reputation. Long pilloried by critics for its low wages, meager benefits and the multitude of employee class-action lawsuits filed against it over the years, the retail giant has been trying to turn around its image by boosting employee pay and benefits and offering additional training. Now, Walmart has joined the ranks of well-regarded employers like Starbucks and United Technologies Corp. by giving its workers the opportunity to attend college on (mostly) the company’s dime.

Full- and part-time Walmart employees will be able to take subsidized classes toward degrees in business or supply-chain management, online or on-site, at one of three colleges: the University of Florida; Brandman University in Irvine, Calif.; and Bellevue University in Bellevue, Neb. Employees will be eligible for the program after completing 90 days of employment with Walmart and will be required to contribute just $1 per day toward the classes–Walmart will take care of the rest, including books and fees.

Walmart, which employs 1.4 million people in the U.S., is competing for workers in a labor market so tight that a Chik-fil-A franchisee recently announced he would boost his workers pay to $18 per hour. It’s also in a massive fight for retail dominance with Amazon, trying to build up its online presence and attract the tech talent it will need for success. These and other moves–including new “Walmart Academies” in the back of some of the company’s stores to provide manager training–are part of an effort to boost its image.

“We know there [are] a lot of benefits from a business perspective,” Drew Holler, vice president of people innovation for Walmart U.S., said on a call with reporters, reports the Washington Post. “We know we’re going to see an influx of applications.”

Not everyone is impressed with Walmart’s college offer, including Making Change at Walmart, a union-affiliated group, which says the retailer needs to focus on paying its workers better wages.

“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 recently announced it would boost employee starting pay from $9 per hour to $11. Retailer Target Corp., however, has announced plans raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour starting in 2020.

Walmart employees who participate in the college program will be under no obligation to remain with the company after earning their degrees, nor will they face any penalty for withdrawing without completing their courses, a spokesman told the Washington Post.

Andrew R. McIlvaine
Andrew R. McIlvaine is former senior editor with Human Resource Executive®.