Wal-mart’s newest perk: An exit strategy
Granted, Wal-mart is a long way from being the greatest place to work. Low wages, chintzy benefits, lots of things to hate. And let’s not forget a lousy track record on women’s rights. But now Wal-mart is ready to help a lucky few earn college degrees.
Wal-mart’s stated reason, of course, is to help them do their jobs better and to ease their path to promotion within the company. But it can have an added benefit as well: Make them more marketable for better jobs elsewhere.
There’s a Catch 22 (one of my favorite cliches lately, it seems) in this, but I’ll go into that later. First the facts, as reported in the New York Times:
The partnership with American Public University, a for-profit school with about 70,000 online students, will allow some Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club employees to earn credits in areas like retail management and logistics for performing their regular jobs.
The university will offer eligible employees 15 percent price reductions on tuition, and Wal-Mart will invest $50 million over three years in other tuition assistance for the employees who participate.
The Catch 22, of course, is cost. Even after Wal-mart kicks in its share, and even after on-the-job credits are applied, an associate’s degree would still cost about $7,900. Now that’s a paltry amount when compared to the six-digit sums that a four-year degree costs these days. But to someone making $11.75 an hour — the average Wal-mart wage — there might actually be no difference between $7,900 and $79,000 or even $790,000. It’s beyond their ability to pay, end discussion. (I also don’t know how marketable an associate’s degree is, compared to a BA — but my guess is, it does go well beyond a high school diploma)
Still, while it may not help the lowest-level employees all that much, there’s a chance that some of the supervisors or department managers could swing it. And maybe it’ll help them carve out excellent careers with Wal-mart. And maybe it’ll give them a better chance at working somewhere else. And — assuming the economy improves enough so that there are jobs to be had — if the latter is true, maybe Wal-mart will have to compete for its own best talent, by offering better insurance policies and other perks.
I’m not turning into a Wal-mart apologist. It has been a brutal competitor to small local businesses, and it has been a bear for suppliers to deal with. But its environmental track record is pretty decent, and it does offer great value to its customers. And now (albeit indirectly) it is giving its own workforce a better shot at upward mobility within the company — and at outward mobility if they choose to move elsewhere. What would really get me applauding is if it offered low-cost loans to employees who can’t swing even the discount tuition cost. But even if it doesn’t, fair is fair — if I’m going to throw potshots at some of its practices, I have to throw roses at this one.