Walmart will recruit high school students with free SAT prep and $1 a day college tuition

Posted at 9:13 AM, Jun 04, 2019

(CNN) -- Walmart is struggling to find talent in a tight jobs market. So the retailer is reaching out to high school students with a new pitch: Come work at Walmart and we'll cover your SAT prep and college tuition.

Walmart announced Tuesday that it will expand its $1 a day college benefit to its current high school students and future high schoolers who work at the company.

It will also offer up to seven hours of free college credit to high school students and provide free SAT and ACT prep through a partner network. Then Walmart will subsidize the cost of students' tuition, books and fees at six non-profit colleges, including the University of Florida.

Students who go through the program while they work at Walmart will be eligible for different types of bachelor's and associate degrees, such as computer technology, business management and supply chain management.

Unemployment in the United States has fallen to its lowest level in decades, posing a challenge for Walmart and other top retailers. As the retail job openings rate stays above the national average, Walmart has raised its minimum wage, expanded benefits and started to pay bonuses to workers who limit their absences.

Still, Walmart is looking for new ways it can attract new talent.

The retailer is the largest private employer in America. It has more than 1.5 million workersin this country, but less than 25,000 of them are in high school today. That's below the retail industry average, entry-level according to Walmart.

In the past, retail jobs had been attractive to high school students. But Walmart says it has become increasingly difficult to recruit high schoolers because of scheduling difficulties.

Walmart isn't the only company having trouble finding high school students. The youth employment rate has been declining for years as fewer teens enter into the workforce. Several factors are driving this trend, such as an increased focus on youth activities that are more likely to get them into a good college, like summer internships or volunteer programs.

But Walmart believes its offer of free SAT prep, credit for college courses and $1 a day tuition will draw teenagers. It will also try to attract high school students with flexible scheduling and the option of working steady shifts.

Reaching high school students is important to Walmart so the company can identify and train its next crop of talent. Walmart hopes that students who use the education benefit will stick with Walmart after they complete their degrees and move up the ranks at the company either at stores, within the company's supply chain or in corporate roles.

Walmart has a history of building up high school students. More than 300 of Walmart's approximately 4,700 US store managers started off as hourly workers in high school. Walmart's current CEO, Doug McMillon, started working at Walmart in high school, too.

"We see this as a pipeline that we can leverage that we currently aren't," said Julie Murphy, Walmart's executive vice president of people. "We want to be able to create that connection early."

Walmart made the decision to expand the college benefit to high schoolers with "the future needs for our organization" in mind, she added.

Walmart first announced the college benefit last year. The retailer says that more than 7,500 workers have been accepted into the program, spanning young adults to workers older than 60. They also range in experience. Some workers, for example, have been at the company for decades. Walmart projects that more than 60,000 students will go through the program in the next four years.

For Walmart, the college program has helped it retain workers and recruit new employees.

"The business aspect of this is clear," said Drew Holler, vice president of associate experience for Walmart US.

Other companies are also focusing on education benefits to draw workers. Hotel chains and McDonald's have recently expanded tuition benefit programs. In 2018, McDonald's started offering $2,500 a year to eligible restaurant employees and $3,000 to managers in tuition assistance. Starbucks also started a tuition-free program in 2015.

-- CNN Business' Katie Lobosco and Lydia DePillis contributed to this article.

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