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Alexandra Biesada

Amazon to send warehouse workers to school

by Alexandra Biesada | Dun & Bradstreet Editor

July 24, 2012 | 4 Comments »

BIZMOLOGY — Front and center on Amazon’s homepage today is a letter from CEO Jeff Bezos announcing the Amazon Career Choice Program. Under the new program, warehouse workers can receive tuition assistance in an Amazon-specified field. These include aircraft mechanics, computer-aided design, machine tool technology, medical laboratory science, dental hygiene, and nursing.

To be eligible, employees need to work for Amazon for three years and the benefit is capped at $2,000 per year. Only technical and vocational programs are covered by the program.

While the connection between packing boxes and dental hygiene isn’t immediately apparent, the program demonstrates the growing competition to attract and retain workers to staff the online giant’s vast and rapidly-expanding network of fulfillment centers. (At the end of 2011 Amazon employed more than 15,000 full-time permanent workers at more than 30 warehouses in the US.) The letter says the program is designed to expand workers’ choices whether they stay at Amazon or move to another job at another company.

The tuition offer follows recent criticism that some Amazon warehouse workers may face harsh working conditions. The e-tailer’s booming business and rush to fill order quickly, put some employees under tremendous pressure to boost production news reports say. Indeed, an article in The Morning Call last September interviewed 20 current and former employees at Amazon’s warehouse in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania who told of soaring temperatures and a brutal work pace.

It’s obvious that by posting his self-congratulatory letter on the homepage and addressing it to customers (not employees), Bezos has public relations in mind. Still, the new tuition reimbursement program has the potential to benefit thousands Amazon employees. Who’s gonna argue with that?


Without even going to check out the details of it, this sounds great to me. When employees lament that they have no opportunity for advancement at a particular organization, it sometimes is due to the fact the company can’t offer it. Understandably, those businesses see themselves as absolved from helping out in those situations, but Bezos seems to be saying, “Amazon wants to help no matter where you want to go.”

The fact that he is specifically catering to “hourly associates” shows an awareness of where the real need/demand is for this. The fact that there *is* no connection between a warehouse job and a medical laboratory science position is precisely what makes sense about this, to me. Bezos’ acknowledgement that the program could well lead these people to different companies is a sign that he understands better than most enterprises what employees are looking for when they say they want more opportunities for career advancement.

Maybe I won’t be so thrilled if I dig into the details, but judging from this, it sounds like it really is an “innovative” HR step forward, and one that I hope more companies adopt.

Just a quick perusal of various “best companies to work for” lists shows no sign of Amazon. If I were in a position at the company that had something to do with that, I’d make that one of my goals. This move seems like an effort to achieve something like that.

Chris, In fact, Dollar General just announced a similar program for their employees (but not on its homepage). — Alex

My question is, from reading about what it’s like to work in one of those giant warehouses, how much time and energy will workers have to take advantage of this program? It’s laudable, of course, but people working an eight-hour shift, that’s more like 10 hours what with a standard commute, and who get at the most 30 minutes total a day for things like eating and bathroom breaks, are not going to have a lot of energy for going to school to learn a trade.

Some warehouse workers walk 10 to 15 miles per day on the job! While they’re most likely in great shape, they may be too exhausted for school. At least they get to sit down in class.

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