Amid all the questions posed and uncertainty presented by the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, one thing remains certain: Organizations must invest in the development and well-being of their employees to ensure their success and safety across all levels of the company.

Many organizations were already reckoning with the need to upskill and reskill employees prior to the coronavirus pandemic. However, COVID has placed a renewed emphasis on the need for educational and developmental opportunities outside of traditional two- and four-year degree programs. Student loan debt reached a record $1.56 trillion in 2020, and — amid mass furloughs and changes in workflows — organizations and individuals alike are looking for alternatives to develop the skills they need to succeed in the future.

For many, quitting or reducing hours at work to complete a certificate or degree program is not an option. As the largest employer in the U.S., Walmart answered the call to provide employee enrichment opportunities by extending its offerings through Live Better U, its employee education benefits program. With Live Better U, Walmart associates take advantage of educational and professional development opportunities while maintaining employment and receiving benefits. Launched in 2018 in partnership with Guild Education, Live Better U gives Walmart employees the opportunity to earn their high school diploma for free and an associate’s or bachelor’s degree for $1 per day.

“The need for upskilling and reskilling was already gaining momentum before COVID-19 hit. The economic downturn created by the pandemic has only accelerated that need and created new challenges for employers as they consider workforce transformation,” says Rachel Carlson, chief executive officer of Guild Education, the unicorn company behind Live Better U. “In the coming months, one of the most important things employers can do is help their workers learn new skills to ensure that they’ll be ready for additional economic shifts on the horizon.”

With a persisting recession and drastic unemployment numbers pervading the U.S. economy, investing in employee development and education is critical to closing not only internal but nationwide skills gaps. Let’s examine the critical skills Walmart’s Live Better U education benefits program seeks to instill in its associates to ensure success both at Walmart and in future career opportunities outside the company.

Trade Skills

The U.S. has long been experiencing a critical skills gap, but in July 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the number of job openings increased to 6.6 million, with over 90,000 openings in contracting and trade skill positions in particular. With a nationwide demand for trade skills, giving Walmart employees opportunities to develop skills in these in-demand roles will provide them promising career advancement opportunities both within the company as well as later in their career journey.

With the help of Penn Foster, Walmart associates enroll in courses in six skilled trade fields. These courses result in a certificate of completion in high-demand skilled trades, including facilities maintenance, industrial maintenance, heating, ventilation and air conditioning, refrigeration, electrical, plumbing, and construction trades.

Digital Skills

The digital landscape is constantly and rapidly evolving. As a result, the World Economic Forum predicts that more than 133 million new job roles will result from the emergence and advancement of automation and technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI). Despite the excitement and innovation these technologies promise, without skilled employees to operate them, organizations will struggle to effectively leverage technology and remain competitive in a fast-moving digital marketplace.

“The addition of skilled trades through Penn Foster and digital programs through eCornell and [Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU)] is something that was in the works even before the pandemic. It’s now more relevant than ever to Walmart associates,” Carlson asserts.

In partnership with eCornell and SNHU, Walmart added 19 certificates in digital skills to help employees gain the skills they need to succeed in increasingly digital work environments. These certificates focus on three areas: data fluency and decision-making, design thinking and user experience, and technology.

“Our hope,” says Carlson, “is to provide Walmart associates as many career pathways as possible. That was the inspiration for the recent expansion of Live Better U programs — enabling associates to pursue careers in everything from pharm[acy] tech to skilled trades to digital marketing.”

Soft Skills

Employees cannot succeed in the future of work by developing technical and hard skills alone. To develop a resilient, adaptive and innovative workforce, employers must take a holistic approach to skills development by including the cultivation of soft skills. Carlson shares, “The goal of Live Better U is to provide associates with two types of skills: the hard skills needed to be successful in today’s relevant career pathways but also soft skills like collaboration, communication and teamwork, which are required for all of us who hope to succeed in the future of work.”

With opportunities for mentorship and guided coaching, Live Better U seeks to actively support employees throughout their development. “For the past two years, it’s been a privilege to partner with the Walmart team to help actualize Live Better U because of our aligned vision for the program,” says Carlson, “ … rooted in a commitment to supporting associates and providing not just skills training but also the coaching and guidance that can help them stay on track and complete their program of choice.”

It’s hard to say what the remainder of 2020 and the upcoming year hold for organizations and the people that support them. However, by taking a page from Walmart’s book, organizations can support their employees by investing in their continued education and development.