Walmart woos high-school talent pool with SAT prep, college tuition perks

Move over, millennials. Walmart is courting an even younger crop of employees with its nearly-free tuition benefits: high schoolers.

The retail giant said Tuesday it will expand its college tuition benefit to high school workers in an effort to recruit more talent in a tight labor market while helping to tackle costly student loan debt. High school students will be able to earn college credit and will have access to free ACT and SAT prep courses through the nation’s largest private employer, along with the practically free college tuition.

The benefit extension announcement comes shortly after the company said recently that it hopes to nearly triple the number of employees who take advantage of its tuition benefits — close to 12,000 workers — by year-end.

Walmart debuted its tuition program, through provider Guild Education, last May. It allows eligible employees to pay just $1 a day to earn a degree. All Walmart and Sam’s Club workers in the U.S. who have been with the company for 90 days are eligible; it applies to all part-time, full-time and salaried employees.

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Employees restock shelves of school supplies at a Wal-Mart Stores Inc. location in Burbank, California, U.S., on Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2017. Wal-Mart Stores is scheduled to release earnings figures on August 17. Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

Ellie Bertani, Walmart’s senior director of learning strategy and innovation, said in April that 4,500 Walmart employees had enrolled in the retailer’s program. On Tuesday, Walmart said that number has risen to more than 7,500 Walmart employees.

“We spent much of the first nine months making sure it was an excellent employee experience, and there were few friction points in the journey,” Bertani said during the event in Denver held by Guild Education. “We have some very significant goals in what we would like to see.”

See also: Walmart wants more employees to use $1-a-day tuition benefit

Walmart also announced it is adding 14 new technology degrees and certificates as part of its degree program — skills the employer says workers will need in the future.

Walmart says high school students currently make up less than 25,000 of the company’s 1.3 million U.S.-based associates. It’s betting that the program will help those workers avoid one of the biggest barriers to pursuing higher education: a hefty price tag.

With the nation’s student loan debt nearing $1.5 trillion, some employers, like Walmart, are trying to tackle the issue before it begins by offering free or nearly free college tuition.

“As employers investigate the ways student debt affects their workers — and how they can help — I think some of them are thinking, ‘Hey, let’s go back a bit and see if we can help people from incurring the debt to begin with,’” Julie Stich of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans told EBN last fall.

Walmart is one of a handful of employers that in the last year announced they will foot most of the bill for employees to get college degrees as the war for talent heats up and employers see the effects student debt is wreaking on the workforce. Others include Bright Horizons, the Walt Disney Company, Discover, MGM Resorts International and U.S. Xpress.

See also: War for workers sets off emerging benefit trend: Free college tuition

Free tuition benefits “are pretty amazing when you think about it,” Stich says. “It’s reflective of the times we’re in right now where we’re all scrambling to find the key, perfect person to fill job openings.”

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