Walmart (WMT), the largest private employer in the U.S., is offering its 1.4 million associates an updated suite of education benefits.
Branded as "Live Better U," Walmart's U.S.-based associates will be able to finish high school, participate in the retailer's $1 a day college program, and receive discounts of up to 20% on master's degrees.
This rollout comes amid a broader conversation in corporate America about the changing nature of work and the need to prepare employees to adapt to new technology.
"This transformation that retail is going through and how technology is entering, we need to upskill and train associates to take on customers ebbing and flowing what they are looking for from a retailer," Drew Holler, the SVP of Associate Experience, told Yahoo Finance. "So, we have to adjust the skillsets to meet those demands. As we teach and associates learn they are better able to take care of customers."
Two years ago, Walmart launched its in-house training program called the Walmart Academy. The free academies, located in the back of about 200 stores, teach associates customer service skills, retail math, and how to use new technology, among other things. Now, associates can earn up to 21 hours of college credit at the retailer's academies that can transfer to some universities.
More recently, Walmart partnered with Guild Education, a firm that helps companies offer education benefits to employees. As part of Walmart's program, they selected three universities — University of Florida, Brandman, and Bellevue University — where associates can earn a degree for $1 a day. Those three schools also cater to adult learning.
"We wanted to remove that financial burden for them," Holler said. "We felt like giving the associates a $1 a day was something they could reach to — it wasn't within reach. It did give them that skin in the game to allow them to follow through."
The degrees offered under the $1-a-day model include an associate of arts (general education) or bachelor's degrees in business management and leadership, business administration, and business management (supply chain, transportation, and logistics management). Eventually, Walmart wants to provide more tech degrees.
Walmart also works with the universities to tailor the content for associates to make it more relevant. For example, in a finance class, the students might use a Walmart P&L statement to understand a balance sheet.
To date, 3,000 Walmart associates have enrolled in the college program. Across the suite of educational offerings, more than 4,500 associates have joined at various levels, with about 200 signing up this week alone.
"We talk about 'Save Money, Live Better.' That is our mission as a company. We felt like we had the opportunity to expand this," Holler said. "This is a foundation for us. We will continue to grow it."
Holler expects when the associates start to graduate that many will stay with the company.
"You may be hourly today, but you may go into management. Some may leave and do other things, which we would be happy with as well."
Julia La Roche is a finance reporter at Yahoo Finance. Follow her on Twitter.