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Amazon offers its workers chance to become nurses, mechanics

It’s an odd twist for an employer to offer you tuition money for an education that will lead to a job with another company. But that’s just what Amazon.com has proposed to its employees.

This week, the online retail behemoth announced a new program that would give its full-time hourly employees a maximum of $2,000 a year toward tuition and textbooks. The one catch: workers can’t just decide to go to culinary school.

Amazon.com has chosen only certain fields that are in high demand based on government labor statistics such as engineering, information technology, mechanical and electrical trades, healthcare, construction, transportation, and accounting.

The types of jobs an employee could end up with are those that require technical and vocational training, not bachelors or master’s degrees, and go beyond the walls of Amazon.com including aircraft mechanics, dental hygienists, and nurses, the company said in a statement.

“At Amazon, we like to pioneer, we like to invent, and we're not willing to do things the normal way if we can figure out a better way,” said Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com.. “It can be difficult in this economy to have the flexibility and financial resources to teach yourself new skills.”

Bezos statement, which was posted on the front of the site when customers go to the main page this week and includes a salutation to “Dear Customers”, acknowledged that some Amazon workers at its distribution facilities may want to remain with the company for the long haul, while others may be looking for other careers.

“Amazon wants to make it easier for employees to make that choice and pursue their aspirations,” the company stated.

It’s a kind gesture to employees for a company that came under fire last year for workplace conditions at one of its warehouses in Pennsylvania. 

The customer letter includes a line about how the company’s innovation “has driven improved reliability, accuracy, and speed of delivery, as well as productivity and safety.” Company spokesman Ty Rogers said Amazon’s recent move was not a response to last year's safety issues.

"A long-term, engaged, positive workforce is critical to delivering the high level of customer service that people expect from us," he noted.

No matter what the reason, some workforce development experts saw this as a smart management move.

“When I recommend tuition assistance programs to clients, I tell them you’re may be developing these people right out of your employ, and that’s okay,” said Susan Heathfield, About.com’s human resources expert. “You want the smartest, most developing people working for your company you can find. If you limit what you’re going to pay for in terms of career development you have disgruntled employees.”

She said the types of work that warehouse employees do is hard and many of those workers many not have longevity at Amazon as it is. “In a way,” she continued, Amazon is “investing in people to retain them but they love them enough to be thinking about what this person is going to do in their future.”

Clearly, it will go a long way in making some hourly workers feel better about their employer. Providing career opportunities is a key driver of employee engagement, according to a study released by human resources company Aon Hewitt last month.

One problem with Amazon’s offer is it may not be quite enough for some employees. According to Glassdoor.com warehouse hourly workers make about $12 an hour, and at that rate, saving for tuition today may be tough for some. While Amazon is offering $2,000 maximum a year to employees, the cost of a two-year aircraft mechanic’s degree can run anywhere from $8,000 to $30,000 depending on the school; and nursing two-year associates degrees from nearly $5,000 to over $20,000, according to Educaton.Costhelper.com.

“In many ways its just a gesture because it just not a lot of tuition. Many companies I know provide assistance that goes far beyond that,” Heathfield maintained. “But I’m not going to put Amazon down because I’m so happy to see this.”

“It’s a minimal contribution toward career development of people in jobs that don’t have career horizons,” she added.

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