Walmart, the country's largest private employer, is hoping to win over a new group of workers: high school students.
The retail giant said Tuesday that it will begin offering free SAT and ACT prep courses, as well as more predictable schedules and debt-free college degrees to its employees as it tries to attract workers in a competitive labor market. Walmart is also expanding its $1-a-day college education program to include degrees in cybersecurity, computer science and other technology fields for its 1.5 million U.S. workers.
"We know high school students face challenges when it comes to work and education," Julie Murphy, Walmart's executive vice president of people, said in a call with reporters. "We see this as a pipeline (of workers) that we can leverage."
Retailers have been struggling to find and keep workers in an industry marked by low wages and high turnover rates. Walmart last year raised its hourly starting wage to $11 to keep up with rivals like Amazon and Costco, which now pay at least $15 an hour. The company has also begun offering paid parental leave and adoption benefits to full-time employees. (Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, owns The Washington Post.)
The national unemployment rate of 3.6% is at its lowest level since 1969.
"When the labor market tightens, retail is one of the first industries to feel it," said Hyunseob Kim, a professor of labor economics at Cornell University's Johnson Graduate School of Management, told The Post last month. "Retail workers tend to be generalists - what a Walmart worker does is similar to what a Macy's worker does - so it's easy for them to move from one employer to another."
The percentage of teenagers who work has fallen steadily in recent decades as schoolwork and extracurricular activities become more demanding. About 34% of 16- to 19-year-olds currently have a job, down from 58% in 1979, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That figure is projected to drop to 26% by 2024.
Even when teenagers want to work, economists say it is becoming harder for them to find entry-level employment because older Americans are staying in the workforce longer or are taking on part-time work to make ends meet.
High school students make up less than 2% of Walmart's U.S. workforce, company executives said.
"We know that teenagers are having a hard time finding that first job," Drew Holler, vice president of people innovation for Walmart U.S., said on the call. The retailer, he said, is hoping to "connect high school students with not just a job but with a career, potentially."
Last year, Walmart began offering associate and bachelor's degrees in business and supply-chain management to its employees for $1 a day. About 7,500 employees are enrolled in the program, which covers the cost of tuition, books and fees at three universities.
Walmart is expanding that program to six schools with online programs for working adults. They include University of Florida in Gainesville, Southern New Hampshire University in Manchester, and Wilmington University in New Castle, Delaware.
Rachel Carlson, CEO of Guild Education, a Denver-based company that oversees the program, said it has saved Walmart workers "tens of millions" of dollars in student debt in the past year.
"Why go to college to get a job when you can get a job to then go to college?" she said.
This article was written by Abha Bhattarai, a reporter for The Washington Post.