Employment and Jobs

An Update on Upskilling in America – Summer 2021

September 10, 2021  • UpSkill America & Jaime S. Fall

As summer draws to a close, I wanted to take a moment for us to reflect on some of the exciting advancements we have seen in the upskilling movement over the last few months and to let you know about another upskilling event coming up in a few days.

Company Upskilling Program Announcements

The biggest upskilling news this summer came from the retail sector, with Amazon, Target, and Walmart each making significant announcements.

Photo: A smiling Target team member wearing a red Target shirt, black face mask and blue gloves, standing behind a Plexiglass shield at the Order Pickup counter

Target Launching Debt-Free Education Assistance Program to More Than 340,000 Frontline Team Members

Target has teamed with Guild Education to offer employer-funded college degree and certification programs for its 340,000 employees. The program is available to all part-time and full-time employees working in Target stores, distribution centers, and headquarters locations in the U.S. From their first day of work, workers will be eligible for debt-free assistance for select undergraduate degrees, certificates, and certifications from 250 business-aligned programs at more than 40 schools, colleges, and universities with no out-of-pocket costs. Read more.

Walmart Makes Live Better U College Program Free

Walmart (a supporter of UpSkill America), meanwhile, made its Live Better U (LBU) program free for its 1.5 million part-time and full-time Walmart and Sam’s Club employees. Walmart now pays 100% of college tuition and books for associates in the program, which used to cost participating associates $1 a day. Walmart reports their investment in training and development programs will equal nearly $1 billion over the next five years. See below for more information on the results of the Live Better U program to date. Read more.

Amazon Expands Career Choice Program for Frontline Workers

Amazon also made news with its announcement to expand the company’s education and skills training benefits to 750,000 U.S. employees through its Career Choice program. Amazon will fund college tuition, as well as high school diplomas, GED’s, and English as a Second Language (ESL) proficiency certifications for its front-line employees who have been at the company for at least three months. Amazon is also adding three new upskilling programs to provide employees with the opportunity to learn skills in data center maintenance and technology, IT, and user experience and research design. Amazon reports their education and training investments will total $1.2 billion by 2025. Read more.

An employee walks toward a garbage collection truck in San Leandro, Calif., on Feb. 12, 2018.

Waste Management Offers No Cost College Degrees

Retail wasn’t the only sector expanding education and training benefits. Waste Management’s nearly 36,000 full-time employees nationwide will have access to more than 170 fully funded programs including undergraduate and graduate degree programs, high school completion programs, and technology and business certificate programs. The company is emphasizing business, technology, science, and mathematics — programs where it has internal skill needs. Waste Management will also expand the program to benefit-eligible spouses and children. Read more.

New Collaborative to Help Get People Back to The Workforce

A group of organizations created a new collaborative to help people receive upskilling and return to the workforce. The collaboration includes Accenture (a supporter of UpSkill America), Better Up, The Mom Project, Pluralsight, Guild, Orderboard, Pipeline, and SkyHive. Companies in the program identify their talent needs, and candidates who are ready to grow their skills and find a new role enroll in the FutureofU program. Selected participants begin upskilling while receiving pay and benefits while enrolled full-time in the program, and FutureofU participants begin their new role full-time. Read more.

What did we miss?

If your company created new or expanded existing education and training benefits, we would love to learn about it and share the news. Email me at jaime.fall@aspeninstitute.org.

UpSkill America News

We’ve been busy at UpSkill America as well, working with our partners in the Upskill America Network to find solutions to some of the upskilling challenges employers and workers face right now.

Promotional image for the event “Insights from Businesses: How Digital Transformation Is Impacting Work and Skill Needs," hosted by the Aspen Institute on September 22, 2021, at 2 pm EDT. The image includes the event info and a background photo of a woman working at a laptop with technology symbols floating around her.

Insights From Businesses: How Digital Transformation Is Impacting Work and Skill Needs

This summer, my colleagues from the research team of the Economic Opportunities program and I have been speaking with employers to learn:

  • In what ways businesses are adopting technology in the workplace, and if COVID-19 accelerated these efforts.
  • How digital transformation is impacting skill needs for frontline workers.
  • What approaches businesses are taking to support development of digital skills for frontline workers.

On September 22, we’ll be joining our partners from Strada Education Network and Walmart.org (funders of UpSkill America) to host a virtual event to examine what we have learned from employers and what can and should be done to help workers build the skills they need to advance in the workplace. More information on the event including registration can be found here.

This is the third part of a yearlong study looking at how COVID-19 and heightened attention to racial inequality affected businesses, their operations, skill needs, hiring and HR practices, and education and training programs. You can see previously released products from this study here.

Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity Workplan

Earlier this year, a group of leading employers joined forces to form the Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity, a peer network of employers from across industry sectors who are working together to ensure the country’s workers, learners, and communities have the digital access and digital skills essential for thriving in a post-COVID digital economy. UpSkill America, in partnership with Digital US, is working with this network to leverage its collective reach and deep understanding of employer and community needs, share information, and accelerate widespread scaling of high quality, employer recognized resources, training, and effective practices to build digital resilience. We still have room for a few additional companies to join the Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity. Click here for more information, and please reach out to me if you would like more details.

The Latino Digital Skills Divide: Current Landscape and Call to Action

The Aspen Institute Latinos and Society Program and the Economic Opportunities Program have launched a new research project that aims to improve understanding of the obstacles and opportunities that Latinos face to better integrate them into the digital economy. Through the project, funded by Google.org, our programs are engaging with firms that employ Latinos across the retail, construction, hospitality, agriculture, and manufacturing sectors to identify the digital skills that these industries need in a changing economy. The project will also bring to light promising business practices and ecosystem approaches to developing the digital skills of the Latino workforce and, in turn, increase productivity and profitability that benefits both the local and national economy. Read the announcement.

Employer Reported Results

Finally, two of our partner companies released results from their programs this summer.

Walmart ESG Report

Walmart (a supporter of UpSkill America) reported that in FY2021, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, approximately 95,000 associates were trained through the Walmart Academy. Walmart also reports that since the launch of Live Better U in 2018 through January 2021, more than 44,000 Walmart associates have enrolled. More than 6,000 students have completed programs, including over 320 graduates who have earned an associate or bachelor’s degree in an in-demand field. At the end of 2020, associates had completed 290,000 college credits worth more than an estimated $123 million. Read more.


Lumina Foundation Live Better U Study

Lumina Foundation partnered with Walmart and Accenture to study outcomes for Walmart’s hourly associates enrolled in Live Better U. They measured how employees fared in three areas: attrition, promotions, and performance. According to the study, Live Better U participants exceeded non-participating associates on all measures across all racial and ethnic groups. Read more.

McDonald’s Corporate Education and Training Report

Meanwhile, McDonald’s (a sponsor of the Employer Network Advancing Digital Skills and Equity) reported the following results for its Archways to Opportunity program since it began in 2015:

  • Increased access to education for more than 65,000 people.
  • Awarded college tuition assistance to 50,000 restaurant employees.
  • Over 1,400 graduates in the Career Online High School program.
  • 7,900+ graduates from English Under the Arches (since 2007).
  • Over $145 million awarded in high school and college tuition assistance. Read more.
What upskilling results have you achieved?

We’d love to learn about progress you are making to build the skills of workers that open doors to opportunity.


As we look ahead to the fall, we invite you to join us September 22nd for our next event. Until then, please let us know what upskilling work your company or organization is engaged in or how we might be able to help. As we’ve learned this year, with the rapid expansion of digital transformation, it is a critical time to be providing opportunities for workers to grow and advance.

Thanks for all you are doing to expand the upskilling movement.

Join the upskilling movement

UpSkill America is an employer-led movement that promotes training and advancement practices to help workers progress in their careers and move into better-paying jobs. UpSkill America is an initiative of the Economic Opportunities Program.

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