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As a leader in career-relevant education, University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) has frequently formed alliances with government agencies and corporations to advance its public mission to produce graduates with the necessary skills to meet today’s ever-changing workplace requirements.

Now, the university is breaking new ground in partnership with technology and e-commerce leader Amazon.

The university’s latest workforce-development endeavor—as Amazon’s premier online education partner to advance IT skills for thousands of the retailer’s hourly employees nationwide—offers both a dynamic new approach to skill-building and the potential of helping workers make the move from hourly jobs to salaried, sustainable careers.

The initiative, which officially launches in January, prepares employees for IT industry certifications and associate degrees in IT-related fields through the Amazon Career Choice Program—under which Amazon will pay up to 95% of tuition and fees for hourly employees to receive training and education in high-demand areas. Amazon’s goal is to assist them in finding higher paying, more advanced positions outside of the company.

Most of the eligible employees work in Amazon's more than 110 fulfillment center sites across the country.

The partnership between the largest online, public university in the U.S. and the nation’s second-largest private employer, is timely. The September 2019 joint report, “Closing the Skills Gap,” released by Wiley and Future Workplace, found that 64% of surveyed employers believe there is a skills gap in their company, up from 52% in 2018. The study also concludes that while “upskilling” provides a way to close skills gaps, HR leaders generally lack the funds to implement adequate employee education and development programs.

That’s unfortunate, because companies that invest in employee education can gain an array of advantages, including a reduction in the rate of employee turnover, a common problem in retail and other industries that rely heavily on hourly workers, said William Dodson, a retired human resources consultant who, for 23 years,  headed HR efforts for the largest grantee of the U.S. Department of Labor.

“There’s an investment in the job training that companies give their employees, and with an education benefit such as that being offered through UMGC, employees interested in obtaining an associate degree are more inclined to stay with the company and complete the program, “ Dodson said.

“And companies want to be seen as an employer of choice. You can’t discount the goodwill factor. Different employers approach that goal differently but partnering with UMGC to elevate their employees’ skillsets is a valuable way to achieve that goal. It’s a win-win.”

When the program takes effect in January, Amazon’s hourly employees can work toward an associate degree in general studies with a specialization in computer studies that allows them to focus on one of four tracks, each of which offers a high potential for employment. Employees may choose to concentrate on studying to be a computer user support specialist; an information security analyst; a network technician; and a Web developer.

Several elements that set the UMGC-Amazon employee education program apart from other workforce development programs are its flexibility, adaptability and “stackable” approach that meet the needs of each individual employee at any given time in their job progression to help them stay relevant in the workplace and advance their careers.

For instance, many of the UMGC courses aligned with the computer-studies specialization tracks also prepare students for industry certification exams, such as CompTIA A++, CompTIA Network+, CompTIA Security+, Certified Ethical Hacker (CEH), Cisco CCNA, and Linux+.  A course taken to work toward a degree need not be repeated to earn a certification.

Also, an employee could first increase his or her value to the company by completing the necessary courses to prepare for industry certification, such as CompTIA Security+. Then, by completing an additional group of courses, the employee could earn a certificate in that specialization. Ultimately, by stacking on additional coursework, an employee could complete an associate degree and become more marketable and competitive in the job market.

And, through its established online delivery platform, UMGC also offers the ability for employees located anywhere in the country to earn undergraduate certificates or seamlessly transfer into a UMGC bachelor’s degree program after earning the associate degree.

To optimize success along the journey, the university offers onsite and virtual admissions and enrollment support, including a website tailored specifically for Amazon with detailed instructions and FAQs related to enrollment. UMGC also provides student success coaches, tutoring, mentoring and access to the university’s Effective Writing Center.

“This unique relationship allows us to combine the university’s strengths—quality academic programs in IT that are offered online; a robust, customer-centric career services operation that has existing relationships with national employers; and an academic support system that is geared toward the unique challenges of working adults—with Amazon’s commitment to improving the lives and career potential of its hourly workforce around the country,” said UMGC President Javier Miyares.

Arguably, the program’s key distinguishing factor, is UMGC’s commitment to providing employees with the assistance they need to successfully navigate the space between earning their credentials and landing the job.

Nikki Sandoval, UMGC associate vice president of Alumni Relations and Career Services, leads a university-wide strategy to establish direct paths for students and alumni to achieve their career aspirations

Newly upskilled employees will have access to a wealth of job-search tools as well as the UMGC network of more than 1,200 employers across the country that routinely post positions or proactively recruit job seeking students or do both. The university has also cultivated a list of 140 preferred employers who are carefully selected for in-person and virtual recruiting events that are conducted throughout the year.

Through the university’s CareerQuest platform, students have 24/7 access to career development and planning resources and tools, such as tutorials on how to use LinkedIn effectively to connect and network with fellow Amazon cohort students and colleagues around the country. The “Community Connect” feature of CareerQuest can be particularly useful for Amazon employees.

This tool makes it possible for them to identify and reach out to UMGC alumni currently working in IT roles in companies around the country and arrange for informational interviews to learn about the field and the firms for which they work.

“In a very direct way, we’re connecting students’ education with their career . . . and to career opportunities with a future,” Sandoval said.