© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Walmart’s logo is seen outside one of the stores in Chicago

By Nandita Bose

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Walmart (NYSE:) Inc said on Tuesday it is seeking to attract high school students by offering them a low-cost path to a college degree and will expand an education program it started a year ago – in a new bid to draw workers in a tight labor market.

Walmart’s announcement comes a day before its annual shareholders meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas, which will be attended by Senator and Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders.

At the meeting, Sanders is expected to pressure Walmart to raise its wages and introduce a shareholder proposal calling for hourly associates to have a seat on Walmart’s board.

“I’m going to Bentonville, Arkansas, to tell the Walton family of Walmart, the wealthiest family in America: Get off welfare. Pay your workers a living wage!” Sanders tweeted last week.

The world’s largest retailer offers an entry wage of $11 while rival Amazon.com Inc (NASDAQ:) pays $15 an hour and Target Corp (NYSE:) has said it will offer $15 by the end of 2020, prompting labor groups, unions and politicians to criticize Walmart’s pay policy.

Walmart has said its average hourly total compensation and benefits total more than $17.50 an hour.

Tuesday’s announcement is also tied to U.S. retailers struggling to hire and retain talent, especially young workers, with unemployment at its lowest in nearly half a century.

$1 A DAY

Last year, Walmart said it will pay its part-time and full-time workers to go to school, in an effort to improve employee retention rates and engagement at work.

Walmart, which is the largest U.S. private sector employer, with a nearly 1.5 million workforce, said it will cover the costs of tuition, books and fees while employees will be required to pay $1 a day for the duration of their studies.

Walmart’s initial offer required employees to get degrees in business and supply chain management. The expanded program, it said, will add 14 new technology degrees in areas including cyber security and computer science.

The expanded program will also seek to draw and retain high school students by offering them jobs with scheduling options, such as the opportunity to work the same day and shift for 13 weeks.

It will also offer free ACT and SAT test prep, up to seven hours of free college credit, a debt-free college degree and a graduation bonus program of up to $1,500 for 5,000 U.S. workers who have not previously completed a college degree.

The cost of college remains a significant barrier for many high school students, which often leads to costly student loans, Julie Murphy, executive vice president, People, Walmart US, told reporters on a call.

The Center for Microeconomic Data recently reported that student loan debt is now nearly $1.5 trillion and fewer and fewer teens are entering the workforce, Murphy said, citing numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. BLS estimates that by 2024 only 26 percent of teens will have a job, she said.

Walmart workers can earn degrees and certificates at six nonprofit universities, including Southern (NYSE:) New Hampshire University, Purdue University and the University of Florida.

Less than a year after the launch of Walmart’s program, more than 7,500 Walmart workers have been accepted to at least one of the programs, the retailer said.

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