Image via Walmart Walmart is expanding a program called Live Better U that offers education benefits to store employees, with the hope of attracting more high-school age applicants.

published on October 2, 2019 - 1:14 PM
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As the available labor force continues to shrink, one major retailer is expanding a program to draw the one demographic whose employment numbers have been shrinking historically.

Walmart announced over the summer a plan to expand education benefits as a way to bring high school students into the workforce.

In the first year of the big-box retailer’s Live Better U program, 5,800 associates took advantage of either subsidized education cost or SAT and ACT test prep.

The effort comes as a way to bring in and retain workers amidst what many employers view as a labor crunch, according to Michelle Malashock, director of corporate communications for Walmart.

Malashock said that Walmart is in a unique position in its ability to hire workers, with a consistently high numbers of applicants.

But more than 50% of the workforce is full time, Malashock said. The demand for predictable schedules from employees leaves gaps in evenings and weekends. Of the 1.3 million employed by the corporation, only 25,000 are under 18 years old.

“When you think about 4,700 stores, that’s not a lot of people,” Malashock said.

Across the nation, the number of high school students with a job has been in decline since the mid-2000s, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In 2002, the annual average employment rate for 16-19-year-olds dropped below 40% for the first time since 1965. Following that, employment numbers continued to trend downward, bottoming out in 2011 at 25.8% of youth with some type of employment.

“We might be graduating folks from college and high school with a lot of book smarts, but they aren’t learning critical skills like how to manage work and life,” Malashock said. “How to ask for time off, how to have difficult conversations with a boss, how to have difficult conversations with a customer — we really think that jobs that people used to get in high school are really, really important.”

The number of 16-19-year-olds with part-time or full-time work has been trending upward in recent years, though is still not at pre-2000 levels. Employment reached 31.2% nationwide in 2018, according to the BLS.

Minors need a work permit in most circumstances. That means restrictions on when and how many hours they can work. This presents scheduling conflicts and often, employers don’t want to bother considering the rules, said Margie Newton, program director for career education with the Kings County Office of Education. A lot of times, employers will tell students she tries to connect to jobs to “come back when they’re 18.”

Labor code also puts restrictions on what kind of work can be done. Children are not allowed near most machinery and equipment. Malashock said at Walmart, a majority of open positions involve stocking and customer service.

To bring more students on, Walmart is using its benefits in hopes of attracting high school students. Malashock said they will be coordinating with guidance counselors and job fairs to let students know about their benefits.

While not a high school student, Brandon Snyder, 33, came to the company after a recruiter told him about an asset management position. Now an asset protection manager for the Fresno region, Snyder took part in the first year of the company’s Live Better U program. Snyder is taking online classes toward a business administration degree at Bellevue University.

“I really thought a four-year degree was something out of reach,” he said. But Walmart subsidizes the cost to $1 a day.

The hope would be that getting students higher education means better retention for the company.

Getting his business degree means Snyder feels better prepared to “speak the same language” as others in managerial and executive positions, where he sees himself in the future.
Malashock said that 300 store managers across the nation began with Walmart in high school.
“For us, it goes back to building that next generation of retail talent,” she said.

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