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Walmart hopes that helping send its workers back to college will keep them with the company.
The nation's biggest private employer announced Wednesday morning, at the start of its annual shareholders meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, that it will begin subsidizing the cost of higher education for its employees who've yet to earn a college degree. Starting Wednesday, they will be able to enroll and study at either the University of Florida, Brandman University or Bellevue University.
To make this possible, Walmart is partnering with Guild Education, a tuition reimbursement and education platform that helps large employers extend education benefits, including tuition reimbursement, to workers.
The news of this program comes as many businesses in the U.S. today face a tighter labor market, and competition for the best talent is intensifying. Chains like Starbucks and Chipotle have started offering similar education perks to get workers to stick around.
Earlier this year, Walmart hiked its starting wage rate for hourly employees in the U.S. to $11, while also expanding maternity and parental leave benefits. The retailer also has been testing out a more lax dress code in certain markets to allow jeans.
The company said it estimates as many as 68,000 of its employees initially could sign up for the new college program. Walmart employs 1.5 million in the U.S. The company declined to comment on how much this initiative will cost it.
Employees will contribute $1 per day, for 365 days every year, toward their education, so long as they're enrolled. Walmart will cover the rest of the tab. Workers will be able to choose from the three nonprofit schools and have the option of taking classes online with the flexibility to study during the evenings or on weekends.
Currently, Walmart helps workers complete their high school education and take the GED. With the new program, they will be able to obtain an associate's or bachelor's degree in either business or supply chain management (with more degree options expected to be added over time). And unlike some other programs, Walmart hasn't set a minimum GPA requirement, so long as employees pass their courses.
Julie Murphy, executive vice president of Walmart's U.S. people division, explained on a call with members of the media that there's also no penalty for those people who choose to stop the program early. It's designed to "give employees the confidence to learn and grow with Walmart," she said.
Lowe's earlier this year announced a new workforce development program known as "Track to the Trades," also through a partnership with Guild. CNBC reported late last year that Guild, started in Silicon Valley, is valued at more than $100 million.