While working full time in an Amazon fulfillment center, Phi Nguyen was looking for ways to advance his career — without going into debt. Earning a four-year college degree was out of the question; after all, during the 2019-2020 academic year, the average cost of tuition and fees at a public U.S. institution was $10,116 for in-state residents and $22,577 for out-of-state students. At private universities, they averaged $36,801 per student.

Then, Nguyen heard about Amazon Career Choice, a training and development program offered through Merit America. The program is designed to help full-time Amazon associates in “lower-complexity” roles gain the skills they need for “upwardly mobile careers” — inside and outside Amazon — in fields like computer science and information technology (IT), health care, mechanical and skilled trades, and transportation, says Rebecca Taber, founder and chief executive officer of Merit America. Amazon pays up to $12,000 in tuition, textbooks and fees (for up to four years) to ensure all associates can access the training they need to pursue their career goals.

After hearing about the program, Nguyen says, “I knew it aligned with not only the skills I wanted to learn in fields I was interested in, but it was a program Amazon could help me pay for.” Now, Nguyen works as an IT support specialist at Shermco Industries, with a salary bump of about $11,000 annually.

Since the program’s launch in 2012, over 25,000 Amazon associates have participated in the program. The program is active in 14 countries today. Let’s look at how Amazon Career Choice helps employees like Nguyen achieve their professional goals while benefiting the company’s bottom line.

Opening Doors of Opportunity

Although in-person training programs can be effective, they are largely inaccessible for learners who work 40 hours per week — especially when factoring in additional responsibilities like child and/or elder care, Taber says. Amazon Career Choice was designed with these employees in mind. Tammy Thieman, global program lead for Amazon Career Choice, says there are “key points” during the learning journey that can be especially daunting for learners juggling a full-time job and family responsibilities, such as navigating the material and beginning the job search after certification. “We’ve seen that providing counseling at each of these pivotal moments improves the likelihood of Career Choice participants’ completing their education program and landing a new job.”

The program uses blended learning so that learners can work online training into their schedules while benefiting from in-person coaching. In this way, it gives learners the “best of both worlds,” Taber says. Nguyen, for example, completed 16 weeks of online learning at his own pace. Then, he says, “They assigned me to a professional coach, who I spoke [with] frequently to assess my progress and help me build the interview skills that made me a strong job applicant.” Although Amazon is now holding in-person coaching sessions virtually in light of the coronavirus pandemic, in a recent survey, 90% of learners reported liking the fully virtual program “as much or more” than the blended learning format, Taber says.

To fully prepare associates for their next career endeavor, Amazon Career Choice teaches both technical and professional skills. While technical skills, such as web development and medical lab technologies, are largely industry-specific, professional skills like communication, writing resumes and cover letters, interviewing, and conflict resolution are applicable across disciplines, Taber notes. These professional skills are fundamental in helping learners achieve their career goals.

Nguyen shares, “The biggest obstacle I saw when preparing to shift into my new job was meeting new people, but the coaching I received through Merit America helped me develop the skills to be more confident.” Now, Nguyen says, his current employer continues to see his potential, even allowing him to work on certain projects “earlier than expected” thanks to his training.

Nguyen believes that the program “is a great way for Amazon employees to access a training program, especially for those who previously felt they couldn’t because of financing concerns,” Nguyen says. “It’s the first step [they] can take to control their learning and start their career.”

Bottom-line Benefit

At first, the idea of an L&D program designed to help employees advance into roles inside and outside the company may raise eyebrows. Why would an employer adopt a program that could lead to turnover?

Taber says Amazon Career Choice benefits the company in three key ways:

1. Short-term Retention

Amazon knows, Thieman says, that not all workers intend to stay for the long haul — especially employees working in lower-skilled roles. However, given the company’s scale, “We’re able to make an impact on communities where our associates live and work and offer the option to move into skilled roles outside Amazon.” In terms of retention, Taber says, “If, by offering opportunities like this, [Amazon] can keep folks a few months longer … that actually makes a meaningful difference.”

2. Recruitment

People want to work at companies that invest in their professional development, and Thieman notes, “We know that investing in our employees and giving them opportunities to pursue their dreams is the right thing to do.” Amazon Career Choice helps “differentiate Amazon as an employer” and attracts “high-quality talent” looking to advance their careers.

3. Reputation

Supporting employees’ career development shows that an employer “really cares about” and invests in its people, Taber says. It shows that the company is not just looking to “churn and burn” employees but, rather, to help them gain valuable skills for career advancement. While a job at Amazon may be a “step toward a long-term career in another field” for some employees, Thieman says, “We want to make it easier for employees to make that choice …. Skilled talent is needed, and we’re proud to invest in our employees’ futures outside Amazon.”

A Call to Action

Investing in employees’ career development benefits everyone. Even if a learner walks out the door to pursue a career elsewhere, a talented candidate might walk into the door looking to launch his or her career at a company dedicated to professional development.

Even in today’s uncertain economy, companies should continue investing in their people. After all, Taber says, “The most important currency to a lot of employers is the quality of their workforce. And the No. 1 way to ensure a quality workforce is to show them that you are committed to their long-term success.”