Reporting on the connections between education and work

Amazon teams up with 140-plus colleges to make education free for workers

The company also announced four national university partners for its Career Choice benefit for 750,000 U.S. employees, which features degrees, certificates, and alternative paths to college credits.
(Claudio Schwarz/Unsplash)

Amazon is working directly with colleges on its growing free college program for frontline workers—a lot of colleges, fittingly.

The company announced today that it has partnered with more than 140 colleges and universities through Career Choice, the education benefit it recently expanded and now offers for free to its 750,000 hourly U.S. employees.

Amazon will not work with an intermediary to administer the program. It circulated an RFP and has picked dozens of new college options for participating employees. The company also tapped four nonprofit universities with large online footprints as national partners. They are Southern New Hampshire University, Colorado State University Global, Western Governors University, and National University.

“We’ve selected the partners deliberately, so that we can innovate together,” said Tammy Thieman, global program lead of Amazon’s Career Choice.

She pointed to the wide range of credentials and scheduling flexibility offered by the four universities—such as National’s four-week courses, which are available online and in person. Thieman said the company’s goal is to “make it as easy as possible for folks to go to school.” It is offering courses at 110 Career Choice classrooms located in Amazon fulfillment centers in 37 states.

The 140 institutional partners include both community colleges and four-year universities, with fully covered academic programs ranging from certificates and certifications to associate degrees and bachelor’s degrees.

The deepening investment in Career Choice is part of Amazon’s broader pledge to spend $1.2B on its nine free education and skills training programs for employees by the end of 2025. The company wants to upskill more than 300,000 of its U.S. workers to help them land good jobs in high-growth fields—within Amazon or elsewhere—as the retail giant and many other employers increasingly automate jobs.

At the same time, Amazon Web Services, the company’s cloud computing subsidiary, is spending big to offer free cloud training to 29M people globally.

With Career Choice, Amazon is focusing on fields that offer both career growth and salaries that typically are higher than the $18-per-hour average starting wage the company pays its employees.

A health-care company official told The Job that workers from nearby Amazon warehouses could get subsidized training to fill many entry-level openings in allied health. But medical assistants typically aren’t paid enough for the role to be an approved Career Choice credential path. The dilemma is further evidence of the severe, multifaceted societal challenges that are driving labor shortages in both allied health and early childhood education.

Thieman said Amazon is using labor market data to shape Career Choice offerings at the local level, and that the company will adjust them to keep up with the shifting economy. The goal, she says, is to help employees understand their options so they can be good consumers of education.

“We do that work for them on the front end,” said Thieman. “The program is designed around career success.”

Thieman says Amazon went with the large network of partners in part because its workers value local college brands—as do most prospective college students, and their next employers.

College preparation, for credit

In addition to adding college partners, Amazon has expanded Career Choice to include high school completion and English language proficiency training.

The company also is covering all tuition for students to enroll in college credit–bearing online courses from Outlier. Created in 2018, the platform features 12 courses and plans to add six more this year. Aaron Rasmussen, Outlier’s founder and CEO, is the co-founder of MasterClass, which offers online classes with high-end production and big-name instructors.

Students who complete Outlier courses earn credit from the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown—not retroactively as prior-learning credit, but as course credits that will transfer to most colleges.

“They are actual Pitt credits on a Pitt transcript,” said Rasmussen.

Amazon also worked with Outlier to create an “on-ramp” or college pathway certificate worth 12 credits. The credential is based on four Outlier courses, which students can take in any order. They are required to take courses in college writing and math and can choose one liberal arts and one business course.

Rasmussen said the certificate is a no-cost, low-risk way for Amazon employees to explore college while earning credits that will transfer. “It’s so important to build that confidence—that you can do college.”

Like MasterClass, Outlier draws heavily from the wealth of research on quality online courses. “Make it beautiful,” Rasmussen said, noting that the company conducted 200 interviews for a math instructor position.

Outlier features a cohort-based approach and a range of supports, both of which Rasmussen says are key to giving students the encouragement and help with time management they need to succeed.

The Kicker: “We spend the majority of cost of goods sold on wraparound supports,” said Rasmussen.

This article originally appeared in the March 3, 2022 edition of The Job newsletter.

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