While a path to an affordable four-year college degree should be available to everyone, it’s not the path that everyone will or should choose. Some people seek careers in areas such as skilled trades that require certificates, associate degrees, or other post-secondary education along with work-based learning components. Unfortunately, the path to either four-year college or alternative education programs is blocked for many people who lack the time, resources, and connections to invest in and successfully complete the education and training they need for the career they aspire to.
That is why we were pleased when Walmart recently expanded their Live Better U education benefit program to include six skilled trades programs, with plans to link participating employees to related employment opportunities within the company. Although Walmart isn’t the first company to offer its employees support to pursue training for the skilled trades, the retailer has been a leader in the tuition assistance space and in supporting education programs that don’t fit the traditional four-year degree profile. We want to lift up this new program so that other companies can consider whether expanding the types of education programs eligible for their support to include the trades might be right for them and their employees.
Before the pandemic, our nation had a shortage of engineers and healthcare workers. What has received less attention is our critical shortage of workers in skilled trades. While it is still unclear what labor market demand will be like during and post-pandemic, we know that the skilled trades workforce has been aging, with large numbers nearing retirement. How significant of a shortage are we facing? Over the decade preceding the pandemic, ManpowerGroup’s report The Talent Shortage, based on their annual survey of employers, consistently ranked skilled trades workers at or near the top of their list of “in-demand workers.” Skilled trades workers such as electricians, welders, and mechanics topped ManpowerGroup’s most recent list, ranking them higher than occupations in fields such as engineering, IT, and health care. If economic recovery policy response to the pandemic includes investment in infrastructure, we would anticipate an increase in demand for skilled trades professionals.
Frank Britt, CEO of Penn Foster, the online education provider for the skilled trades programs now available through Walmart’s Live Better U, identified several reasons for this tight labor market. These include lack of support for career technical education in high schools, which limits the supply of new skilled trades workers entering pipelines for these professions; the “silver tsunami” of older workers retiring from skilled trades professions; and, the changing nature of skilled trades, which requires new digital skills in many occupations. Through our research, we know that structural features of training and employment practices in the trades make it challenging for people who lack personal connections to navigate training and early employment in the skilled trades. This is especially true for women and people of color who are underrepresented in employment in many of the trades.
The demand for skilled trades workers is being felt in many ways. Besides what we typically think of—jobs in commercial, residential, industrial, and infrastructure construction—we’ve experienced shortages of skilled trades professionals who maintain equipment, facilities, and infrastructure in factories, stores, institutions, homes, and more. The shortage of skilled trades workers is also being felt by large employers such as Walmart and the many smaller companies in their supplier network.
Although supporting education programs that don’t fit the traditional four-year degree profile is unusual for a tuition assistance program, Walmart has added six skilled trades professions to the degree and certification programs eligible for support through their Live Better U education benefit program. Programs include:
- Facilities Maintenance
- Industrial Maintenance
- Construction Trades (Construction Helper, Drywall and Ceiling Tile Installer, Flooring Installer, General Maintenance and Repair Worker, Insulation Worker, Woodworker)
So how, exactly, does this program work? Associates of Walmart and Sam’s Club enroll in the program through Guild Education, the operator of the Live Better U program. They take educational courses online through Penn Foster. At Penn Foster’s recommended pace of about 10 hours a week, programs take from six to 12 months to complete. Once associates complete coursework and earn a workforce certificate in a trade, Walmart has plans to help them land entry-level roles at Walmart, Sam’s Club, or with a company in Walmart’s contractor network, where they will gain the on-the-job training and experience they need to prepare for state certificate or licensure exams. These local connections forged through work-based learning will be critical to helping people gain the experience and begin to build professional networks they need to be successful long-term.
Walmart already offers more than 30 certificate and 40 degree programs as well as a popular high school completion program through its $1-a-day Live Better U program. What it has done to open doors of opportunity for underserved populations is already impressive. In announcing this expansion, the company shared that Walmart and Sam’s Club associates in all 50 states and totaling more than 25,000 have enrolled in Live Better U education programs. The majority of associates engaged are women; the average age is between 30 and 40; and 47% of associates enrolled are people of color.
We anticipate that these new educational opportunities in the skilled trades, linked to related employment opportunities within the Walmart network, will be attractive to a growing number of Walmart associates. Companies looking to see higher take-up rates in their tuition assistance programs, and especially companies with skilled trades employment shortages and projected shortages who can offer work-based learning in a trade, should consider expanding their offerings to include the skilled trades. They might just find this represents a strategy that will help solve a significant skill shortage for themselves—and for the nation.
Tweet .@Walmart is a leader in supporting education programs that don’t fit the traditional four-year degree profile. Learn about how they are paving the way for improving outcomes for their employees.
Tweet A four-year college degree is not for everyone, and the demand for skilled trades work is high. That’s why @Walmart added six skilled trades professions to their degree and certification programs.
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