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Walmart to cover worker tuition costs at some colleges as war for talent heats up

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In its latest move to attract and keep workers in a tight labor market, Walmart Inc will begin covering college tuition and books costs for the 1.5 million U.S. employees who pursue degrees at certain partner education institutions.

Walmart, the largest private U.S. employer, said on Tuesday it would invest almost $1 billion over the next five years to help its Walmart and Sam’s Club employees take classes to hone their skills and earn degrees in areas such as business, supply chain, and cybersecurity as part of its Live Better U (LBU) college education program. 

Employees previously had to pay $1 a day to take part in the program. But as the labor market tightens, and retailers struggle to keep the best workers, Walmart has sweetened the perk. 

“The economy and job market have changed, and Walmart is always looking for new ways to encourage more associates to pursue further education,” the company said in a press release.

Walmart’s employees will soon have four more academic institutions from which to choose in addition to the current six: Brandman University, Penn Foster, Purdue University Global, Southern New Hampshire University, Wilmington University and Voxy EnGen. The new institutions are Johnson & Wales University, the University of Arizona, the University of Denver and Pathstream. 

The company’s Live Better U education program was launched three years ago to help employees move up the ranks. Some 52,000 employees have participated and 8,000 have graduated since 2018, Walmart said. The move is reminiscent of Starbucks’ moves several years ago to offer tuition coverage for some online programs, a perk it has enhanced over time. 

A Korn Ferry survey of retail bosses earlier this month found that 51% of respondents are having moderate trouble hiring store employees, while 36% reported facing significant challenges, leading top retailers and restaurant chains to raise benefits for workers. 

For instance, Costco Wholesale, Sam’s Club’s most direct rival, this year raised its minimum hourly wage to $16. McDonald’s and other fast-food chains recently added more tuition help and new benefits for caregivers to entice reluctant workers. And in April, Amazon announced raises for 500,000 of its workers. 

Walmart has been under pressure to formally raise its own minimum wage to $15 per hour but has balked, saying it preferred to maintain flexibility and that its average starting wage is above that threshold anyway.

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com