Walmart already is one of America’s largest employers with approximately 1.4 million associates nationwide. But it also is a leader in providing education and upskilling opportunities for those employees.
Walmart’s Live Better U (LBU) launched in June 2018 with the goal of supporting working adult learners by offering free student coaching, college credit for Walmart training, and career pathways for LBU graduates. In addition, in coordination with Guild Education, LBU also offers $1 per day college degrees.
It recently expanded to offer LBU benefits to all full and part-time employees and added in-demand skilled trade and digital skills programs to its traditional college offerings. In effect, the $1 dollar a day education benefit allows Walmart associates to obtain career-advancing credentials and college degrees debt-free.
Additionally, Walmart continues to expand its five-year-old Academy program, which is its 200 in-person training sites where associates get fully paid on-the-job training. The employees are fully paid during the training people, which can be as long as six weeks. Workers who attend an Academy are typically hourly department managers and above, and training is tailored to the area of the store in which they work. But, just as important as job training is the opportunity for attendees to earn college credit if they choose to go that route.
I sat down (over Zoom) with Walmart’s Senior Director of Giving Gayatri Agnew and its Senior Director of Associate Experience Ellie Bertani to talk about these educational opportunities at Walmart, what those opportunities do for the company and its associates, and their impact beyond company walls.
The Walmart Academy
Walmart training academies are dedicated facilities where associates receive instruction on retail fundamentals and area specific skills. Since the first academy opened, the curriculum has expanded to cover dozens of positions, including customer service manager, online grocery pickup, and assistant store manager. Associates are trained through a combination of classroom and sales floor exercises, utilizing technology including tablet computers and cloud storage for training materials, according to the company.
The employee learns skills that will help them while working at Walmart, such has how to read a P&L statement and how to manage people. But as Agnew explains, there is an additional benefit for the employee–college credit. The training that the Academy is providing can earn the employee up to 19 college credits.
“The beautiful part is, they’re not having to pay. They’re not having to because we’re covering the cost of matriculating that credit from the Academy into the school, and so the associate just starts with that credit in hand,” Agnew says. “People see the ability to grow, not just to grow professionally. So if we can structure programs that enable and empower our associates to grow while they’re working for us that’s only going to serve them and us well.”
“There’s also just this incredible soft component of the confidence it builds,” says Bertani. “The fact that many of our associates have never graduated from any type of educational experience. You don’t think about how limited people’s opportunities have been, often for very tough circumstances they’ve been living through, and how meaningful that can be to them. That’s been an important point we’ve talked about because it really tells the story internally, and reminds people that yes, obviously we’re doing this for the business, but this changes people’s lives.”
College for $1 a Day
While the Academy is mandated—internal training on business processes and leadership designed to drive the business—Live Better U is an optional educational benefits program. It is almost entirely paid for by the company, save for the $1 per day associates pay. Live the Academy program, both the company and the employee see the benefits.
Bertani says there are already more than 110 education pathways within the Live Better U portfolio. “We have selected those that we know will allow associates to progress within our business. Everything from business degrees—both associates and bachelors—and supply chain degrees, core areas of our business that will always be critical.”
The portfolio also includes IT degrees and certificates, health care degrees and certificates, and some career diploma programs like pharmacy technician and optician, which could help them find better-paying jobs within the Walmart stores.
“Our associates in the Live Better U program are promoting at twice the rate of traditional associates who aren’t in the program, which is really compelling,” says Bertani. “They’re retaining at significantly higher rates, which is particularly interesting. If they leave the business, we’re happy for them. It’s not an issue. We don’t restrict them, or claw back anything, because we want them to have been better for having been with us.”
Making the Higher Education Connection
Walmart has partnered with Guild, a for-profit middleman, to provide access to high-quality university partners who are uniquely positioned to help with the educational needs of adult working learners. Guild also provides a substantial coaching network to keep students on track.
“Every associate is assigned their personal coach that stays with them, touches base with them every single week, whatever format they like, text, phone call, Red video chat, whatever,” Bertani notes. “Because Guild has full integrations with the university, those coaches know if someone’s falling behind on their classes, if they’re missing class, and they provide that sounding board and advice for how do you balance it all? You’re trying to balance work and family and school. That’s a lot. What advice can we give? What support can we give?”
Future-proof Job Training
Live Better U also has expanded from academics to education in skilled trades like electrical, plumbing, and industrial and facilities maintenance where the pay is good, a four-year degree is not needed, and the jobs are considered “future-proof.”
“We have both worked internally with our areas of the business, realty and supply chain in particular, to build entry-level roles where we can place associates, and they’ll get that hands-on mentorship and experience they need to really be qualified for the full job, and then transition them into a higher level job at Walmart, and with our contractor network,” according to Bertani.
“All of these programs should be achievable under a year, some of them in as quickly as six months for the online learning part. What’s great is then they’re actually placed into a paid job with Walmart or one of its vendors, where they’re going to be learning the skills and growing the skills to be qualified for that formal certification if it’s required.”
“Our People Make the Difference”
Over 25,000 associates have taken advantage of the Live Better U program since its inception in 2018. More than 16,500 associates are active students today. The average associate age is between 30 and 40 years old with most of them female. And 47 percent are people of color.
“There’s been a tremendous evolution I think in the leadership of this company and how they think about our people that hearkens much more back to how Sam Walton used to think about the people,” Bertani tells me. “He used to have this line, ‘Our people make the difference.’ And it was on every single person’s badge, and he meant it.”
“We may have strayed from that for a period of time,” she says, “but over the last seven to 10 years, I think there’s been this realization that our people are immense assets, and that the more we invest in them, the more we get out of them, particularly as the economy moves more and more to knowledge workers, and more and more to more responsibilities.”
Making a Difference Beyond Walmart
Agnew, Bertani, and colleague Drew Holler, SVP of Associate Experience & Operations HR, recently received Walmart’s Sam Walton Entrepreneur of the Year Award in recognition of their roles in creating this innovative employee education benefit.
“All the little pieces we’ve walked you through in this conversation are designed to support our people, designed to allow people to grow. All these components are intentional, and that’s partially because of how Ellie and I are wired to think about the world—and why we came to Walmart in the first place–which is that this is a place that you can make impact,” says Agnew.
“There’s 1.4 million people in the U.S. who work for the company so, if you can unlock opportunity for our associates, then surely you can do it at scale beyond our own associate base. If Walmart can be part of creating a shifted expectation for how employers support their people, then that’s a really positive impact that we can have beyond the walls of our company.”