Amazon will pay full college tuition for some warehouse workers

That won't address concerns about working conditions, however.

REUTERS/Brendan McDermid

Amazon is acting on its promise to improve its treatment of employees, but not necessarily in the way you'd expect. The online shopping giant has pledged to pay full college tuition for its operations (effectively, warehouse) workers in the US beginning in January. The company didn't reveal the full criteria required, but some staff are eligible if they've been with Amazon for just three months.

The firm will also cover high school diplomas, GEDs and English as a Second Language certifications. And no, workers won't have to wait until they've finished a semester to get compensation. Amazon said it would pay tuition and other fees in advance, and would offer annual funds as long as people remain employees.

Staff will also have access to a trio of new "tuition-free" skill programs that will help train for positions in Amazon Web Services, IT support (such as Amazon Robotics) and user experience design. Not surprisingly, Amazon is using pay as an incentive — those on the IT track can make another $10,000 per year, the company claimed.

The incentives for Amazon are clear. This will help it not only recruit more workers for its office roles, but attract and retain workers who were either wary of working for Amazon or want assurances of upward career mobility once their schooling is done. Amazon might lose some of those tuition recipients to other companies, but that could be a small price to pay if it leads to more internal candidates and a more stable workforce.

This won't satisfy many of Amazon's critics. Politicians and labor rights activists have blasted Amazon over tough workplace quotas, constant employee monitoring and higher injury rates at automated facilities, among other issues. There are also allegations Amazon has interfered with unionization votes that could improve conditions and pay. Free education while you work is only useful so long as you're happy with the work itself, and this plan won't change much.

There's also the question of Amazon's outsized influence. The company said it was the "largest job creator" in the US, with 400,000 people having joined since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Paid tuition could give Amazon influence much like that of the military, where people sometimes sign up to defray education costs. As welcome as many might find the gesture, it could give Amazon more clout in society than regulators might like.