Walmart is offering each of its 1.5 million US employees the chance to take a higher education course for just $1 per day, the firm announced on 30 May [1]. Walmart will subsidise the rest of the course’s costs, if the worker – or ‘associate’, as the firm dubs its staff members – agrees to make that nominal contribution.

The announcement swiftly made waves in the media, with Fast Company picking up on some of the caveats behind the scheme, [2] pointing out: “For starters, the subsidised college education is for online courses only, and only through the University of Florida; Brandman University in Irvine, California; and Bellevue University in Nebraska. And you can’t just study any major you want. You’ll need to either major in business or supply chain management.”

Nonetheless, the journal said, “thousands of Walmart’s employees should find a programme like this advantageous. The appeal of earning an associate’s or bachelor’s degree and coming away from it debt-free can’t be denied, even if the major isn’t in your preferred subject area.”

In its statement, Walmart indicates that it is taking the initiative seriously, with access-to-education campaign group the Lumina Foundation onboard to provide an independent evaluation of the scheme’s effectiveness. While Walmart hasn’t explained why it has chosen to launch this scheme now, a recent Forbes feature on how US retailers are dealing with the e-commerce threat [3] hints that the brand is preparing to beef up its competitive challenge against Amazon.

What does Walmart stand to gain by helping its employees in this way – and what could other companies learn from the firm’s action?

The Institute of Leadership & Management's head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “Investing in your employees’ learning and development is recognised as a non-financial reward. But it’s actually quite a lot more than that. By encouraging people to learn, the benefit is not just a reward for the individuals who are doing the learning. You’re also saying, ‘We’re a learning organisation. We want people to grow and develop.’

“By being as focused as Walmart are here – in terms of stipulating the types of courses that staff are able to take – that will yield shared benefits, such as a sharper business awareness across the firm. Plus, a shared language for discussing business goals and concepts.”

However, Cooper points out: “what it won’t necessarily do is add to the enthusiasm of staff who simply think that learning is great for its own sake. The Ford motor company has always been a real pioneer on this front. They run a scheme called the Employee Development and Assistance Programme (EDAP), [4] whereby you are able to do any course on any subject, anywhere. That could even include arts and humanities subjects, such as photography. The reported impacts upon morale, retention and a host of other areas that leaders are always looking to improve have been significant.”

She adds: “in terms of the Walmart initiative, though: great – all learning is nourishing. They’re rewarding their staff; they’re recognising them as people who could grow and develop. The firm must ensure that it is able to harness that enthusiasm and not let people feel that their journeys are in any way wasted. Any such feeling may be a natural by-product of the firm having such a tight focus on what it wants its staff to learn. If you sponsor people on a degree, they will come back as subtly different people, with higher expectations. So if you are unable to accommodate those changed and more developed individuals, the risk is that it could lead to some dissatisfaction. Walmart must watch out for that.”

For further thoughts and insights on learning, check out these resources from the Institute

Source refs: [1] [2] [3] [4]

Image of Walmart store courtesy of fotomak, via Shutterstock

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