Training and development programs for frontline workers are often limited, with varying results. Addressing the key elements that engage adult workers – or what may have turned them off – and making the content relevant to their work and schedule are key challenges to making a program successful.

Walmart, the largest retailer in the world, is no stranger to these challenges. Brian Poland, director of lifelong learning and talent development at Walmart and a 25-year veteran at the company, is tasked with engaging the retailer’s more than 1.2 million associates in education and training.

Several years ago, Poland began developing a plan for Walmart to take a much more active role in training and upskilling its frontline workforce. Based on reports that up to 20 percent of the American workforce lacks a high school diploma, Poland realized that Walmart could have a strong demand for this learning solution.

“We have never made this a barrier for folks interested in working at Walmart. We hire more on aptitude, and train for skills once associates are onboarded and working in the business,” Poland shared. He wanted to find an engaging pathway for associates. “I believe one of the best ways to create opportunity in America is through access to affordable education and training.”

Combining Education and Workforce Training

With that in mind, Walmart began looking at augmenting its existing GED program. “We’ve been offering the GED program to employees for many years, but we were not seeing demand for that program match what we understood to be the need in the associates base. We wanted to develop new programs that would engage associates to continue their education and training.”

Poland reached out to global education and technology company Cengage, which had been providing workforce training courses to Walmart associates at its partner school, Northwest Arkansas Community College. Cengage had just launched the Career Online High School (COHS), part of the nation’s first accredited online high school district.

Part of the appeal of the COHS program stemmed from the fact that the curriculum was not simply an online version of a traditional high school program. As founder Dr. Liebman says, “Adults learn very differently than school-age students. We wanted to develop an evidence-based approach that served the needs of working adults.”

In his research, Dr. Liebman discovered that dropping out of school is a major trauma for most people. “And just like in other traumas, the brain responds with a fight or flight response. Most people take flight,” he explained.

Dr. Liebman’s work in clinical psychology enabled him to develop a program that was specifically designed for the needs of working adults. He identified three major reasons that students drop out: 1) lack of relevant material (subjects that couldn’t immediately be applied to real-life jobs); 2) lack of support; and 3) a culture of failure (many were simply tired of being told they were failing).

Cengage and Dr. Liebman worked together to create a meaningful online curriculum for these adults that would re-engage them in learning. Pairing a high school diploma with a career certificate in a high-demand job area proved to be a winning formula – which has translated into success at Walmart.

“We want to encourage every employee to develop themselves, and the career track in retailing that COHS developed specifically with our retail workforce in mind had strong appeal,” said Poland. The competency-based program is built around student engagement. Learners move at their own pace, assisted by a dedicated academic coach and certified teachers. This combination is a highly effective blend of high-tech and high-touch learning.

Walmart Results

“We couldn’t be more enthusiastic about the results,” said Poland. “It was critically important for us to have a nationally accredited program like COHS, so employees’ credentials are portable and can be utilized wherever their career might take them. In the year since we’ve implemented the program, over 200 Walmart associates have graduated. We are extremely proud to see many people new to the country enrolled in our program, who are also becoming interested in taking advantage of our other educational support programs after graduating with their high school diploma.”

Walmart has subsequently enhanced its GED program, offering both options to employees. One size doesn’t fit all. The key ingredient is engagement, according to both Dr. Liebman and Poland. “We now offer both the GED and COHS to all associates beginning on day one of their employment, increasing access to a quality education early in their employment with Walmart.”

The most impactful feedback comes from Walmart employees engaged in the program. One 38-year-old Walmart associate earned his high school diploma this spring — a dying wish from his mother, who lost her battle with cancer while he was enrolled. He credits his COHS academic coach for keeping him engaged and supporting him along his journey. She had lost both her parents while in college. “She wanted to quit as well, but didn’t. That was enough to push me along,” he said.

Walmart is proud to be a leader in the education of its frontline associates and looks forward to sharing its experience and strategies to help other frontline employers do the same. Partnerships like the one with Cengage are critical to increasing the skills of American workers.