Walmart will offer nearly-free college training to its workers who want to become healthcare professionals as the giant retailer moves to expand its delivery of healthcare services.
Starting Monday, Walmart's 1.5 million U.S. employees can apply for one of seven bachelor's degrees and two career diplomas—as pharmacy technicians or opticians—for a total out-of-pocket cost of $1 per day. The company will cover the cost of tuition, books and fees and provide counseling support.
Executives said they hope the program will help the company fill healthcare jobs at Walmart and Sam's Club, which operate more than 5,000 retail pharmacies, 3,000 vision centers, 400 hearing centers, and the first-ever Walmart Health center in Dallas, Ga.
"Walmart aims to be the market leader in providing retail workers a path to careers in growing fields like healthcare," said Drew Holler, senior vice president of associate experience for Walmart U.S.
The subsidized certificate and degree programs include healthcare management, business administration, supply chain, cybersecurity, and information technology specialties. Executives said the company is considering adding behavioral health specialty training programs as early as next year.
The six participating universities include the University of Florida, Southern New Hampshire University, and Purdue University Global.
Walmart expects about 50,000 employees to take advantage of the education benefit over the next several years, up from 13,000 who currently participate in its Live Better U benefit program.
The free-standing Walmart Health clinic in Georgia, which opened in September, offers comprehensive primary care, dental care, and mental healthcare services. Walmart is testing whether to make a major leap into the healthcare delivery business, competing with traditional providers by offering lower prices.
"This isn't to attract more foot traffic into the store, this is to be in the healthcare business and that's a seismic change," said Kenneth Kaufman, managing director of healthcare consulting firm KaufmanHall. "Their attack strategy appears to be on price, where legacy healthcare organizations are very vulnerable."
Walmart has previously said that its moves to contract with high-quality providers such as the Cleveland Clinic, the Mayo Clinic, and Geisinger Health System, have reduced costs.
About 28% of employers currently have benefit design packages that incentivize employees to use high-quality hospitals or physicians, according to 2018 research from professional services firm Aon, which surveys its employer clients. Another 58% of employers are interested in such a strategy in the next two to three years, according to Aon.
Walmart executives said the new educational benefit program is designed to train healthcare professionals to fill jobs at Walmart's healthcare delivery sites and at other healthcare organizations, given that healthcare industry jobs are expected to grow by 18% through 2026.
"As our health and wellness strategy and offerings continue to evolve, Live Better U will play a critical role in preparing our associates across the country for future work opportunities in the growing healthcare field," said Dr. Thomas Van Gilder, Walmart's chief medical officer.
He noted that the education benefit also increases the number of people applying for jobs at Walmart, and boosts employee engagement.
"The goal is to close the gap that many people see as impossible and allow them to get a higher education," Van Gilder said.