Tuition reimbursement programs are nothing new. Companies have been providing employees with financial support to pursue advanced training and expand their company-relevant skills for decades.
But Amazon, the e-commerce giant that generated $178 billion in revenue last year according to MarketWatch, is taking a different approach. “Most tuition assistance programs target white collar workers and junior managers in pursuit of MBAs,” said Juan Garcia, director of associate career development and head of Amazon’s Career Choice program. “Our program is more peculiar.”
Career Choice is a tuition assistance program launched in 2012 that specifically targets Amazon’s hourly workers. Through the program Amazon prepays 95 percent of the cost of tuition for any employee to pursue courses in any in-demand field – even if that training has zero relevance to the company. Employees, including those who work part time, are eligible to participate after one year of employment, and Amazon will spend up to $3,000 per year for up to four years to help them launch their careers.
It’s no small investment considering the company has more than 560,000 employees and is expanding daily. While it doesn’t break down what percentage of the workforce is hourly, more than 12,000 employees have already taken advantage of the program, securing certificates and degrees in everything from aircraft mechanics and computer-aided design to nursing, truck driving and medical lab technologies. Once employees complete their training, Amazon even provides stipends to those transitioning from Amazon to their new career fields to cover the gap in their paychecks.
“We do end up training a lot of people to conceivably leave Amazon,” Garcia admits. But’s he’s OK with that, and so is the company’s leadership team. “In the end, we want to help our people do what they want to do.”
A Stepping Stone to College
It may sound a little too altruistic for a company best known for crushing its competitors with low prices and same-day delivery, but Amazon doesn’t see it that way. The rapidly growing company was responsible for 44 percent of all e-commerce sales in 2017, and to meet this enormous demand they are in constant need of hourly workers to manage their fulfilment centers. On Aug. 2, 2017, Amazon conducted a mass hiring event, called Amazon Jobs Day, during which job fairs were held across the country to fill 50,000 positions. Many employees were hired on the spot.
The faster they fill these roles the better, Garcia said. Along with offering higher-than-minimum wage, health benefits and other incentives, the program is one more tool Amazon recruiters can use to close the hiring gap. “It’s a big part of our recruiting pitch,” Garcia said.
Garcia noted that many of the employees who take advantage of Career Choice were unable to attend college and see the program as an opportunity to get their careers on track. He recalled one young employee at the company’s Seattle fulfilment center who had intended to join the Airforce to pay for college, but a medical condition prevented him from enlisting. “He thought it was the end of his dream,” Garcia said. But now he’s in his final semester for a degree in supply chain logistics that will pay $35 an hour. “He was thrilled to have that option.”
Jaspinder Brar is another employee who took advantage of the program. Brar had been working at Amazon’s fulfilment center in Tracy, California, for two years when he joined Career Choice. At the time his father was phasing out his trucking business and needed additional drivers. Brar heard about a 14-week commercial truck driving course the Career Choice program offered, so he signed up.
For the first seven weeks he studied eight hours a day, two to three days a week in a classroom at the fulfilment center, and for the second half he attended classes at a nearby trucking facility where he worked on trucks and practiced for the exam. His manager adjusted his shifts to accommodate the classes, and once he completed the training Brar left Amazon to work with his father and to complete a degree at UC Davis in economics.
Last year, Brar was rehired by Amazon as an area manager. “Career Choice was a great opportunity,” he said. It helped him help his father, and he appreciated that his managers supported him even though they knew he would use the training to leave the company. “They wanted to help me do what I wanted to do,” he noted. “It’s one of the reasons I came back.”
How It Works
In the more than five years since it launched, Career Choice has become a popular program. Even a company as large as Amazon has limited resources to spend on training, and Garcia needs to be sure the courses they support align with community needs. To determine what programs are in high demand, he works with the Department of Labor and local economic development leaders to identify what skills are in short supply and then partners with community colleges and training centers to develop targeted offerings for employees.
“Every community has different needs,” Garcia noted. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, the thriving aerospace industry is struggling to find aircraft mechanics, whereas other communities are in need of nurses, programmers and commercial drivers. “Our goal is to identify those roles in each region and align them with the future aspirations of our employees,” he said.
By partnering with local education providers, Amazon ensures employees have access to certified training programs that will help them take the next step in their careers without having to create the content internally, said Corey Pruit, chief operating officer of Maricopa Corporate College (MCC), which delivers training for businesses and nonprofits in and around Tempe, Arizona. Amazon first partnered with MCC in 2013 to develop an on-site pharmacy tech program as a pilot initiative within Career Choice.
At first, the request was a little surprising, Pruitt said. “It sounded like they wanted a training program that had nothing to do with what employees do at Amazon.” But when he heard about the goals of the program, he was on board.
It was one of the first courses to be offered on-site at Amazon, which was logistically a little challenging. Pruitt’s team had to figure out a way to create a secure and sanitary environment at a fulfillment center to support pharmaceutical equipment and to do blood draws and other medical tests. They eventually created a classroom that met the requirements, and 25 people took the first course.
“It went so well they wanted to do more,” Pruitt said. In the years since, MCC has run multiple programs for Amazon both on-site and through its own classrooms covering accounting, emergency medical training, dental hygenist training, medical coding and even English 101. “It’s an innovative approach to corporate training,” Pruit said. “Amazon knows these employees have choices in where they work, and this is a great incentive. They see that Amazon will invest in their professional future.”
It’s also been very successful. Since beginning their partnership, MCC has seen an 82 percent completion rate among Amazon employees. Pruitt credits low dropout rates to the fact that the on-site courses are easy to attend — and hard to skip — when the class is right there in the workplace. “Nothing gets in the way of attending,” he said.
Since 2013, the company has built on-site dedicated Career Choice classrooms at 25 fulfillment centers. The classrooms have glass walls and are located near the entrance of the centers so employees have to pass by them on their way to work. “It’s the first thing they see every day,” Garcia said.
That is a key component of Career Choice, Garcia said. “We want to get rid of all the barriers to participation.” Whenever possible, classes are hosted on-site, and the company even provides babysitting services. “Instead of having to leave work, pick up their kids and then go to college, we bring the coursework to them,” Garcia said.
Amazon also pays tuition up front rather than reimbursing students, which ensures employees who may be living paycheck to paycheck can participate without financial hardship. And managers are encouraged to adjust employees’ work schedules so they can attend classes.
Even with these incentives, there are employees who fail to complete the training. Those who do drop out aren’t penalized, but if they return to the program they have to pay the cost of the class they failed to pass before Amazon will cover tuition for future courses, Garcia said.
Still Growing, Still Relevant
Garcia expects 20,000 employees will participate in Career Choice programs by 2020, and the program recently expanded to include courses in robotics, photovoltaics and programming.
Amazon’s leadership team hasn’t wavered in its support of the program — they believe it helps the company attract and retain quality talent. “We know folks come here to take advantage of this program,” Garcia said. “It has become an important part of the Amazon experience.
Sarah Fister Gale is a writer based in Chicago. To comment, email editor@CLOmedia.com.