Amazon has mad upskills

Vanessa Morales, Mechatronics & Robotics Apprentice, Amazon - Source: Amazon
Apr 23, 2021

A growing number of retailers have identified employee training and development as a core organizational performance need. Many companies believe giving workers the educational tools they need to grow leads to personal fulfillment, and that the organization is rewarded many times over in making this possible.’s plan for providing non-technical employees with the skills they need to move into software engineering roles is one of the best examples of this philosophy in practice.

Workers, only requiring a high school diploma or GED, accepted into the Amazon Technical Academy can move into an entry level software engineer job after nine months in the full-time program. The company claims that it has placed 98 percent of graduates from the academy into internal software engineering positions with salary and compensation packages an average of 93 percent higher than what they were receiving prior to adding new skills. Roughly 40 percent of those going through the program are hourly workers.

Amazonians, as the retail and technology giant refers to its employees, pay nothing for tuition and receive a stipend for living costs and a subsidy to maintain health benefits while in the program.

Ashley Rajagopal, a veteran of Amazon’s Consumer business, leads the program.

“We have intentionally evolved our curriculum and teaching approach to be accessible to participants who didn’t have the opportunity, either because of background or financial limitations, to pursue a college degree in software engineering,” Ms. Rajagopal said in a company blog post.

Ms. Rajagopal said Amazon’s training program is unlike what is done in universities or technical training schools.

“We don’t teach in abstract, mathematical concepts that are regularly used in a traditional computer science university setting,” she said. “Instead, we relate the concept to real life examples like cleaning your room, growing a flower or opening a Russian nesting doll that many people are familiar with.”

Ms. Rajagopal said her job is about paying it forward.

“Someone saw something in me when I came to work at Amazon 11 years ago,” she said. “I had managers invest in me. I feel like it’s really important for me to share that with other people and to pass that along. I believe education is the key to giving people a vision and path to reach their potential and taking control of their career progression.”

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Do you think retailers, by and large, are making adequate investments in training and developing the skills of employees? How important is the potential for career advancement either inside or outside of the employing company to the success of these types of programs?

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"Reskilling workers has never been more crucial as the shape of retail operations continues to evolve."

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12 Comments on "Amazon has mad upskills"

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Bob Amster

Some retailers get that, in a customer-centric retail economy, the people in the frontline of stores and under the headsets in the customer service call centers are the ones that are either going to satisfy the customer or are going to damage the customer’s relationship with the retailer. Retailers have to make the decision to spend more in payroll and in training, or skimp and risk the downside. I have faith that the trend to improve training will catch on across the entire industry.

Patricia Vekich Waldron

Retailers have underinvested and undervalued employees for years, making the industry a less-than-desirable workplace for top talent. Given the current staffing and skill shortages Amazon Tech Academy is a super smart way to retain and retrain staff.

Dave Wendland

Well said, Patricia.

Dave Wendland

Reskilling workers has never been more crucial as the shape of retail operations continues to evolve. The commitment made by Amazon to develop employee skillsets to match new demands is quite noteworthy. I have seen other examples of retailers committing significant dollars to employee development. And this, too, is to be commended. My question is whether companies can move swiftly enough and whether enough employees will gravitate toward such opportunities.

We are at a tipping point where enhanced and refocused skills are requirements for retail tomorrow.

Kevin Graff

Thirty-plus years into our business of training front-line retail staff, here’s what I know:

  • The retailers winning the game have invested in their staff with training, coaching, incentives and remuneration.
  • Those struggling have training “cupboards” that are, for the most part, completely empty when it comes to giving staff the real skills they need to succeed and grow.
  • The good news is that more retailers have realized the need to invest in their most important asset — their staff.

The bad news is that the majority are still too far behind what is needed.

We rarely have to work hard to convince a retailer of the value of training their staff. Now if only they would give their staff as much attention and deserved investment as they do with their IT dreams.

Jeff Sward

Wow. I had not previously heard of this Amazon initiative and I’m impressed. Really impressed. It reminds me of the hypothetical exchange between two executives: “Q:
What happens if we spend a lot money training people and they leave? A: What happens if we don’t make the investment and they stay?” The whole idea moves Amazon to the front of the line as a desirable place to work — and learn, and grow.

Jeff Weidauer

The retail industry has struggled for years to get the best talent. Its current focus on robotics and the decades-long efforts to reduce labor have made retail a less-than-desirable place to work, and it will take a massive investment in training to change that image. The time is right – the industry just needs to respond appropriately.

Jennifer Bartashus

This is a welcome spin on tuition reimbursement policies which have become more widely available in recent years. It teaches specific skills needed as the industry evolves, builds loyalty and creates career mobility without adding a potentially significant debt burden to employees. Many retailers have amped up training, but it often takes the form of operational processes vs. acquiring new skills. As more and more retailers create “tech” hubs it would be great to see a proliferation of this concept.

Gene Detroyer

“Be nice to the customer.” “Make sure the product looks good.” “Here is how you check someone out.” That is the mindset of most retailers and has been for decades.

Fortunately there are the Amazons, Walmarts, Starbucks and a very few other biggies who think beyond their staff being automatons.

Jobs are changing fast and dramatically. They have in so many industries and while retail may be a bit behind in future progress, they are already experiencing the need for different skills (Best Buy). By 2030, we will not recognize the retail industry, even as we know the most progressive players today. Why not take your best and brightest and make sure they too are prepared to move forward with you?

John Hennessy

This is a good move in a tight labor market. It gives potential employees a reason to choose you. Also helps Amazon as the trained employees are probably working at lower rates than it would take to hire for those roles. Retailers with MFCs and other robotic systems can train in robotic skills and make themselves more attractive employers. Look at the many leaders in retail who started out in store. There is a long history of retail rewarding initiative with career opportunities.

Matthew Brogie
1 year 5 months ago

With turnover rates in the retail sector of 76% (according to Korn Ferry), and recruiting costs for more skilled positions continuing to climb, the example that Amazon is setting with this program has a double punch ROI. Keeping retail workers engaged longer as they invest in their own future, and providing a path for the best learners to move internally to fill the demand is a multi facetted win. This is a great example of innovation around the people part of the business that companies of any scale can replicate.

Bill Hanifin

Investing in people is the most direct way to express a brand promise that centers attention on the customer. How trusting will customers be of a brand when they are aware that the brand takes employees for granted?

Making an investment in training is worth every penny. The Amazon program is well-timed also as the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. More workers realize that picking up practical skills, regardless of the source, can help their careers flourish.

This program is one that should be applauded by the general business community and possibly emulated by other retailers.

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