Will Amazon’s plan to ‘upskill’ its employees pay off?

Prime Day was a big success for Amazon this year, netting higher sales than last year’s Black Friday and Cyber Monday combined. But that wasn’t the only positive publicity Amazon received this month: On July 11, the company announced it is launching an ambitious $700 million retraining program to create “pathways to careers” for its employees in areas including health care, machine learning, manufacturing, robotics, computer science, and cloud computing. The mostly free program does not require employees to stay on at Amazon; some programs pay 95% of the costs for tuition and textbooks, capped at $12,000 per employee over four years.

View of an Amazon fulfillment center outside in the sun with a sign and parking lot out front.
Amazon has announced a $700 million plan to retrain employees who will be automated out of jobs. 

In fact, the last element is becoming increasingly important: On July 16—in the midst of Amazon’s Prime Day success—a group of 13 Democratic members of Congress, led by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, called for a Labor Department investigation into the company’s workplace conditions, alleging safety violations and unfair labor practices. Amazon responded by inviting Sanders and his group to visit its warehouses, and repeatedly pointed to its pledge on worker safety.

Since 2013, seven workers have died of vehicle and equipment injuries at Amazon facilities. Safety issues aside, Amazon is taking a calculated risk in offering the training, according to Matthew Bidwell, a Wharton professor of management. “There is the concern that if you give people training in transferable skills, either they leave, or the threat that they’re going to leave means that they can demand much higher wages—and that eats away any of the returns [from the] training,” he says. At the same time, employees “tend to be risk-averse when moving jobs and making a leap into the unknown,” he adds.

Read more at Knowledge@Wharton.