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I did not see this coming. is offering to pay up to $2,000 per year towards educational costs for its warehouse employees if they pursue Associate’s degrees in certain high-demand fields, including fields like aircraft mechanics that have no obvious value within the company.  

I had heard that Amazon was giving up its fight against collecting state sales taxes, so that it could build warehouses in more states and speed up its delivery.  But I did not see this coming.

The contrast with, say, Wal-Mart is instructive.  Wal-Mart contracted with a single national for-profit provider -- American Public University -- and only pays for employees who enroll there.   As the 800-pound gorilla of a customer, Wal-Mart will likely exert tremendous influence over APU’s course offerings, which are offered entirely online.

Instead, Amazon is giving employees the means with which to choose where they want to study.  The programs supported have to be designated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as high-demand and high-wage, and the providers must be accredited, but bachelor’s and master’s degree programs are ineligible.  Between those rules and the low reimbursement, I’d guess that most of the people who take advantage of this will do so at community colleges.  $2,000 per year won’t go far at many four-year schools, and many of the applied programs they’re supporting tend to be found in the community college sector.  

So far, I’m liking this.  Increase my state’s tax revenues while also providing jobs here, send my college motivated adult students, and get me my stuff quicker.  I’ve certainly heard worse ideas.

I can guess that part of the motivation stems from heading off bad press in new locales about working conditions in the warehouses.  But honestly, it’s hard to get mad at a company for responding to public concerns about how it treats workers by treating them better.  If anything, that strikes me as positive.  

Given that employees have to work in a warehouse for three years before becoming eligible, and given the physical demands of warehouse work, I doubt that we’ll be inundated with people.  But the ones who do show up will likely be very motivated, conscientious students, and those are always welcome.  And if some folks are able to move from the warehouse to a higher-paid occupation with minimal student loan debt, again, I find it hard to get terribly upset about that.

Of course, the long term outcomes may not be entirely great.  Should Amazon fall on hard times, there wouldn’t be much stopping it from changing its mind.  If the “speedy delivery” thing really takes off, the local Best Buy should be very, very worried.  If Amazon pushes other retailers into the same death spiral that it did Borders, the long-term effects on local jobs and tax revenues could be negative.  I’m probably not the only shopper who sometimes uses Best Buy as a showroom for stuff I later buy on Amazon.  Take away the store’s advantage of speed, and the showrooming effect could get even worse.  And on the student side, Bureau of Labor Statistics are notoriously imperfect, so it’s possible that someone could take advantage of the program and emerge with the wrong credential at the wrong time.  

But those risks mostly exist anyway.  In the meantime, Amazon is willing to create jobs in new places, to commit to helping employees attend community colleges, and to pay taxes.  

I know there’s no such thing as an unalloyed good, but this strikes me as one of the better ideas to come along in a while.  Wise and worldly readers, am I reading this right, or have I been bamboozled?

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