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

DENVER — Walmart is hoping to nearly triple the number of employees who take advantage of its nearly-free tuition benefits — close to 12,000 workers — by year-end, the retailer said.

More than 4,500 Walmart employees so far have enrolled in the retailer’s program, which it debuted last May. The program, through provider Guild Education, 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.

“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,” Ellie Bertani, Walmart’s senior director of learning strategy and innovation, said during an event held by Guild Education last week. “We have some very significant goals in what we would like to see.”

Bertani said to reach those goals, the company will focus on convincing employees that the new program isn’t “too good to be true,” as well as helping them understand how they manage both work and school at the same time. To take aim at those concerns, the retailer is starting to market its program, posting flyers about the benefits for its employees, then directing them to its website for more information.

“We are really focusing on associate stories and holding up the stories of people who are successfully moving through the program… and in their voice, talking about how they are doing their balancing act and what it means for them.”

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Ana Aquino scans customer purchases at a check-out counter inside a Wal-Mart store in Kearny, New Jersey, U.S., on Thursday, May 14, 2009. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, reported first-quarter profit and sales were little changed as purchases of groceries and $4 medicines countered a drop in international revenue. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg News

Of the employees who have enrolled, 3,000 are enrolled in degree programs in business or supply chain management at the various universities. Walmart associates first started enrolling in the program last fall.

Walmart recently announced it rebranded its suite of education benefits and now dub it the “Live Better U” program. In addition to $1-a-day tuition program, the Live Better U program includes foreign language programs and discounts on other degrees in the Guild Education network.

The impact the program is having on individual employees is driving Walmart’s desire to get more workers to use the benefit, Bertani said.

“One of the most touching things has been a lot of the parents who say it’s not only meaningful for them to not only finish high school or college but what it means to be a role model for their children,” she said. “Those individual stories really fuel the program.”

Walmart is one of a handful of employers that recently 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,” Julie Stich of the International Foundation of Employee Benefit Plans told EBN last fall. “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.”

Part of the motive behind offering free tuition as an employee benefit is recruiting hard-to-reach workers in industries that are struggling.

Walmart, for instance, caters its tuition benefit to its employees in retail — an industry that’s finding it increasingly difficult to hire and keep employees, especially as potential workers seek positions with more flexible hours and higher pay. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, job openings within the retail trade sector have risen each consecutive year since 2010 to reach a record monthly average high of 651,000.

“It used to be that health insurance, life insurance and a retirement plan was enough — that got you retention, and that got people in the door,” Stich said. “But now there are more and more things employers have to offer. Sometimes we see these ‘wow’ benefits crop up, and right now, it looks like [free tuition] is the next one.”

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