Walmart touts its educational perk as a secret weapon while the talent wars heat up for retailers

Walmart touts its educational perk as a secret weapon while the talent wars heat up for retailers
Courtesy of Walmart
  • Walmart's Live Better U program hit a key milestone: its largest-ever graduating class.
  • The retail giant is touting the education perk as the competition for retail talent heats up.
  • Live Better U allows Walmart employees to secure high school and college degrees.

Walmart has announced the largest number of graduates to ever emerge from its educational program, as the company holds up the perk as a major advantage in an increasingly tight labor market.

Through Live Better U, Walmart workers can enroll in programs to earn a high school diploma, college degree, or some other educational certificate for $1 a day. The company recently said that 4,104 workers graduated the program in a 12-month period - a record for LBU. There are currently around 28,000 active students in the program.
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"There are a lot of associates who are really aspiring to more, but given life circumstances, they did not have that access to opportunity," Lorraine Stomski, Walmart's senior vice president of learning and leadership, told Insider. "So that's really how that vision sort of came to life. How could we really give our associates an educational benefit that wouldn't cost them anything?"
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Live Better U launched in 2018 through a partnership with education and upskilling platform Guild Education. It's currently available to all 1.6 million Walmart employees in the US. Since 2018, around 7,000 graduates have graduated from LBU. From April 2020 to April 2021, Walmart said the program saw a 93% spike in both high school and college graduates.

LBU has hit its latest enrollment landmark in an environment where perks and benefits for retail jobs are more important than ever. Despite the fact that 10 million Americans remain unemployed, many employers are currently having trouble attracting talent for hourly jobs. In some states, there are currently more job vacancies than available workers. Some restaurants are beginning to jack up prices to help support rising wages and supply price increases. Some companies - like one group of McDonald's franchisees - have complained that pandemic era unemployment benefits are to blame.

According to Stomski, Walmart believes LBU will prove to be a "super compelling" perk in this exceptionally tight labor market.
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"I think there is something extremely powerful about showing access to opportunity while you're on the job at a Fortune One retailer," Stomski said.

But she said that the benefit is also a factor in terms of retaining existing employees. Walmart said workers who graduate from LBU have higher retention and promotion rates. In some cases, Stomski said that the program provides an opportunity to make the jump from store work to the corporate office in Bentonville, Arkansas. "Our students were saying, 'I would love to get people management skills. I'd love to be a store manager. I'd love to get into operations at the home office,'" she said. "So we've really made sure that we've got degree programs for that."
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Stomski said that areas of particular interest for Live Better U students include retail management, cybersecurity, transportation, logistics, and supply chain. Enrollment in business studies surged 76% year over year during the pandemic. Meanwhile, workers studying healthcare spiked 152%, as the retail giant plans to open 15 new health clinics in 2021.

"Candidly, the programs, skill sets, and degrees are obviously going to be of great value to those students, even if they choose to go outside of Walmart," she said. "We don't want them to, but it happens."

In addition to high school and college degrees, the program offers workers the opportunity to team up with career coaches. Around 650 current students are enrolled in English-as-a-second-language classes. According to Stomski, LBU also serves as a secret weapon in the fight to promote inclusivity in the workplace. She said that 57% of LBU's active students are women, while 19% are African American and 18% are Hispanic.
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"LBU is just one vehicle, but it's a very powerful one and it's one that we're leaning into at Walmart because we want to build a diverse workforce," Stomski said.

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