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Career Insights

August 18, 2022

What Employers Can Learn From Amazon’s Career Choice Program

Rachael Bourque

Vice President of Corporate Learning Solutions, Kaplan North America

The mega-employer’s education benefits program now includes career support and academic advising

By Rachael Bourque, Kaplan’s Vice President of Corporate Learning Solutions, and Tammy Thieman, Global Program Lead of Amazon’s Career Choice Program

Continuous opportunity. That’s the goal of many workers in an unprecedented labor market in which jobs, at least for now, are plentiful. At a time when employees are very much in the driver’s seat, the business leaders who want to attract and retain them should embrace a contemporary view that’s perhaps a little counterintuitive: some of the people they hire may actually be on loan, and businesses can both gain and lose talent in this new way. Employers in this model will however benefit long-term through employee quality and retention.   

In practical terms, this means employers should assume that, now, more than ever, many of their workers will leave at some point—even under ideal conditions—to grow their careers and gain career building experiences, in addition to other reasons beyond salary and benefits. Notably, a new McKinsey report of more than 12,000 individuals across the globe shows that 41% said that the lack of opportunity for upward mobility was the No. 1 reason why they left their jobs. As a business, navigating that reality is critical, whether it’s by providing opportunities or by helping employees prepare for transitions. One of the things that makes Amazon’s evolving education program, Career Choice, so groundbreaking is that it embraces this “new normal”—helping employees advance their careers through upskilling, and other support, even as it recognizes that while some will stay and advance into new roles, others may wind up somewhere else. It may seem the opposite of what businesses should be trying to do, but it’s the only way to create truly worthwhile education programs and attract top tier talent. 

Employers who can get comfortable with this idea have a better chance of transforming their workplace to improve recruitment, retention, engagement, and productivity. Limiting education benefits to internal advancement means employers reduce the value of the benefits to their employees. The average annual employee turnover rate across industries was 47.2% in 2021. In many cases, a development program doesn’t need to keep employees at the company for the long term to be successful for the business or the individual.

Launched a decade ago, Career Choice began as a more traditional tuition assistance program.  Amazon has been iterating since then. By listening to what employees wanted, Amazon has improved the value of the program for employees but allowing them to participate earlier in their tenure, after just 90 days; increasing the program options supporting greater opportunities for career success; and removing the employee contribution, further removing any financial barrier that might limit employee participation. Adjustments like these are important, as only 9% of low-income students earn a bachelor’s degree by their mid 20s, compared with 77% of their wealthy peers according to The Pell Institute.

Early this year, Amazon’s most recent enhancements went into effect, and Career Choice expanded significantly to include pre-funded college tuition, new industry certification courses to improve English-language proficiency, and high school completion programs. All 750,000 of the company’s U.S. hourly employees are eligible to participate just 90 days after starting at Amazon. And the changes had a fast impact: participation grew by more than 25,000 employees in the first six months of 2022.

For adult learners, and in many cases, first generation and post-secondary students, choosing the best fit program can feel confusing and overwhelming.  Providing a mechanism to support employees in making the best fit choice and supporting them through their academic journey is the logical next step. It’s not enough to have generous education benefits available. The benefits have to be used. The programs must be completed. And the people using those benefits must end up in positions with better pay that better support their life goals. Amazon is demonstrating their commitment to not just offering a program but truly helping employees achieve career success. 

To that end, Amazon recently announced a partnership with Kaplan to provide comprehensive career and academic advising support services to eligible employees. This joint effort represents the next step in Amazon’s focus on continuing to improve the way it uses education to rethink the employer-employee relationship. If the partnership yields the results we’re hoping for, it could serve as a model for other organizations looking to adapt to the new continuous opportunity paradigm.

Employers who can get comfortable with this idea have a better chance of transforming their workplace to improve recruitment, retention, engagement, and productivity.

The essential elements of a next-generation employee development program

Kaplan is working with Amazon employees through Career Choice to develop individualized goals before settling on a particular education track. We’ll continue to help employees solve logistical issues and persist through a course of study. Once the degree or certificate is earned, we’ll offer career services to help connect their education to the promotion or the new job they’re looking for.

This approach is a culmination of all the latest thinking on employee development. Other employers should consider adopting key Career Choice features, which include these four fundamentals:

Personal attention. Employees face challenges besides the coursework itself. Some may need help keeping on top of paperwork, solving logistical challenges, or persisting through a rigorous course. First-generation college students, first-generation Americans, and immigrants may need more assistance navigating admissions systems and may require support in a language other than English. Personal coaches focused on each employee’s individual success can provide these services. Some employees may need to earn a high school equivalency or brush up on their language skills before they can take advantage of the career training programs. Including support for GED and ESL classes can make an employee education program more relevant to more people. 

Employee-led education paths. The employee’s goals need to define the path forward. Some employees may find their next position within the company. Others may be destined for employment elsewhere. A degree program may work for one person, while a certificate may be the best choice for another. Others may choose a trade. Allowing employees’ personal goals to define the path offers them better outcomes and fosters greater engagement.

Debt-free education. Traditional tuition support comes in the form of reimbursements, leaving education benefits out of reach for employees who lack cash on hand to pay for their education out of pocket. The average American doesn’t generally have enough money in their savings to finance a college education and is even less likely for those who haven’t earned a high school diploma or degree. By paying educational providers directly and up front, employers greatly expand the number of employees who can take advantage of their programs.

“Last mile” services. A good employee development program considers the program’s completion and the advancement that the program is meant to achieve. A great program focuses on what the employee does AFTER they complete the program. Did they secure a role in the industry related to their studies? Did they get a raise? Did they receive a promotion? Did their education help them raise the quality of life for their family? It’s worth investing in “last mile” support services to help employees network, develop their résumés, cultivate their online presence like a robust and active LinkedIn page, prep for interviews and keep them motivated and positive until they land the career opportunity they want. This is arguably the most important part of the journey: making sure the investment matters for both employers and employees. 

Just as Amazon has learned how much its employees value getting new opportunities that position them for upward mobility, the evolution of Career Choice has shown the company the importance of clear-eyed evaluation of what’s working in the program, and what could be better. Our job needs aren’t static, and neither are the needs of our workers. We must keep making improvements where they are needed. Working with partners to help employees make smart educational decisions that build career success is good for all parties. Amazon, and others who have constructed their education benefits thoughtfully, will be more attractive places to work when services like wraparound support and coaching are part of the package. Learning and growth, supported by employers, have the potential to be game changers for workers in uncertain times.

1. Bureau of Labor Statistics Economic News Release, March 10, 2021

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