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Oops! Amazon did it again

Did you catch the article in last week's Columbus Business First, Shifting strategies, Amazon opens its doors to discuss workforce training program, which describes Amazon's "community workforce development program."

Amazon is launching in Central Ohio a workforce program it calls Career Choice. Hourly employees will be able to apply for 95-percent tuition match up to $3,000 a year to go back to school (in classrooms at Amazon's facilities) to earn degrees in several high-demand areas, including commercial driving and healthcare. From the article:

"Amazon hires lots of entry-level employees to work in our fulfillment centers in our operations network," Johnson said. "We want to then introduce them to Career Choice and the option to study and get an education to improve their skills in things they’re passionate about.

"And then, to have them move when they complete into middle- and higher-skilled jobs, whether they’re at Amazon or elsewhere."

Yeah, that's right, Amazon is improving the skills of its workers so they (the workers) can move out of their current jobs. Like, on purpose. Amazon is paying for degrees in fields that have nothing necessarily to do with working at Amazon, but are in high demand in the local economy. And when, as a result of their new-found education, employees take their talents to other companies, Amazon considers that a win -- a successful outcome.

Wait, what? Not only is Amazon building a pipeline for its own workforce, they're educating the workforce of the local economy.

If the $15/hour starting wage wasn't enough, Amazon has cemented its reputation as an "employer of choice" for entry-level workers. Entry-level workers know they can put in a few years at the warehouse, work on a degree, then branch out into other jobs inside or outside the company that lead to careers.

OK, I am ambivalent about Amazon. The company is on the brink of utter world domination and, quite frankly, I think that's a frightening prospect. (I say that while taking full advantage of my Amazon Prime membership. Yeah, like I said, ambivalent.) But from a workforce and talent perspective, Amazon has raised the stakes. They have changed the game.

Columbus' business community -- especially those of entry-level workers -- had better pay attention.

Amazon is a serial disruptor. From bookstores to CDs & DVDs through the mail to streaming services to production studios. From distribution of niche products to an online marketplace that sells everything (?) under the sun to Amazon Cloud to drone delivery. Rather than holding tight to "because we've always done it this way" as a business strategy, it's as if Amazon says, "What happens if we break all the rules? What happens if we turn this thing upside down? What happens if we take the conventional wisdom and we do the exact opposite, the completely unexpected?"

Amazon has just disrupted workforce and talent in the Columbus region.

What does this mean for local employers? First, The "shut up and do as I say" approach to people management will no longer fly in this economy. Because employees are looking for opportunity. They want to know what they will get out of working for Company A vs. Company B. (And, no, a paycheck is no longer enough.) Employees want to do inspiring work -- work that matters in some kind of way -- and they want to be valued and respected while doing that work.

Second, those companies who compete for entry-level workers and who still consider their employees an expendable commodity -- while simultaneously complaining about lack of "quality" workers -- are about to find life a whole lot more challenging. The already small pool of candidates is going to get a lot smaller as many entry-level workers head to Amazon for their first jobs, to gain work experience, and to earn a degree to better themselves.

And if you think it sucks now, if Columbus' bid for Amazon's HQ2 is successful, it's going to get a whole lot worse.

Andrea Applegate is president of Applegate Talent Strategies, LLC which helps companies implement effective "people practices" to attract, retain and engage their best workforce.

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