Walmart Models Next-Level Business-Education Partnership

This time of year especially, high school graduates wonder, is college really worth it? Employers wonder that too. Yet, we rarely hear about employers working with educators to ensure that students learn employable skills. Walmart’s new Live Better U program offers insight into the benefits such business-education partnerships can provide.

In general, students have good reason to be worried about their return on college investments. According to a 2017 survey by Gallup and Strada Education Network, 40 percent of Bachelor’s degree recipients say they wish they had chosen a different major and 25 percent say they wish they had studied at a different institution.

These regrets don’t stem from a perceived lack of education quality. Gallup found that 89 percent of Bachelor’s degree holders agree they received a high-quality education. The real turn-off is more likely employability—or lack thereof. According to a 2017 report by Burning Glass and the Strada Institute, 43 percent of college grads work jobs that don’t require a degree for their first position out of school. Even after that, the study found that 23 percent of grads continue to be underemployed after five years, and roughly 20 percent remained underemployed for 10 years or more.

But even as students are frustrated that their degrees aren’t translating to jobs, employers are frustrated that they can’t find qualified employees. According to a survey released by the Association of American Colleges and Universities, 58 percent of employers say improvement is needed to prepare students for entry-level positions and 60 percent of employers said improvement is needed to prepare students for career advancement.

“Obviously it’s different for doctors and other scientists as well as some other professions,” said Eric Duffy, CEO of Pathgather and an advocate for on-the-job learning. He continues:

But for most people, the traditional college experience doesn’t give you experience with workplace skills. It’s strange how universities spend so much money on manicured grounds, beautiful dorms, and lots of mail sent out to attract applicants. It all seems so divorced from what should be the objective, which is to prepare people to excel in the real world.

More partnerships between businesses and institutions of higher education would help to address these challenges. By working with educators to shape classes and degree programs to teach the skills they value, employers could build the workforce they need, often from within their existing labor force. Meanwhile, students could invest in education programs designed by employers with greater confidence, knowing that these programs would equip them with employable skills.

Some employers have already begun testing these business-education partnerships. Google, for example, partnered with online learning platforms Udacity and Coursera to provide nanodegrees and specializations that prepare workers to meet company needs.

But Walmart’s new Live Better U program takes business-education partnership a step further. Rather than providing one-off classes or specializations, the program partners with colleges and universities to provide entire degree programs that reflect the skills Walmart seeks in employees. Better yet, Walmart bears the brunt of the cost, charging employees only $1 per day to earn a degree in one of 14 different areas of study including management, business, computer science, computer and network security, or computing technology. Although costly for the company at the outset, Walmart’s investment in its people cultivates a skilled and grateful workforce likely to stick around and strengthen the company for years to come.

Dustin Clemons for example, graduated from high school but never went on to college. Although he always wanted to pursue a degree, it was all but impossible while caring for his 3-year-old son and working. Now, with Live Better U, Dustin shared that he is able to take online classes with plans of eventually earning his bachelor’s degree. His goal is to be promoted to an assistant manager at Walmart.

So far, 4,500 Walmart associates have enrolled in the program, and the program’s developers hope they will use this opportunity to grow and apply what they’ve learned within the company.

“They wanted access to higher education to improve their lives,” Drew Holler, senior vice president of associate experience at Walmart told USA Today. “What we know also is that it’s going to help us with retention . . . and it’s providing skills we need in the future.”

While the program has yet to see whether its first batch of participants successfully graduate, obtain next-level jobs, and continue at Walmart, the program’s design offers an approach other employers should consider, one that both increases access to education and gives employers confidence that graduates have the skills they need to help their company succeed.

Kristiana Bolzman is a Catalyst Policy Fellow and a Young Voices Contributor. She studied Politics and Journalism at Hillsdale College, graduated from The Heritage Foundation's Young Leaders program, was accepted as a Generation Liberty Fellow at the State Policy Network, and has served at Fox News and on Capitol Hill. Her research and writing focuses on education reform and the preservation of civil liberties.
Catalyst articles by Kristiana Bolzman