Diversity & Inclusion
Workplace culture

Upskilling shows a path from the fulfillment center floor to IT roles

Amazon's Career Choice program allows employees to gain certifications and transition into more lucrative career paths in areas such as IT. Such initiatives got a more urgent focus in the pandemic.

Inside Amazon's Sparrows Point fulfillment center. (Photo by Stephen Babcock)

This editorial article is a part of Workforce Development Month of Technical.ly's editorial calendar.

Gaining a job in technology can be more about the skills and experience than a degree. So it is presenting new pathways for folks looking to enter the field, as educators and nonprofits in the region are launching approaches from bootcamps to apprenticeships.

Another path that’s emerging is coming inside the companies themselves. The largest tech companies are increasingly investing in upskilling initiatives, as they seek to train workers for technical roles that will increasingly be in demand.

One recent example came from Amazon, which in July 2019 said it would upksill 100,000 employees by 2025. Among the  offerings that expanded as a result of this move was the Career Choice program, which is designed for employees to gain certifications and transition into more lucrative career paths in areas that include information technology.

When it comes to the courses required to gain the credentials for new roles, Amazon pays for 95% of the tuition costs through this program. For people like Jose Ramos, who worked at Amazon for five years before taking advantage of the Career Choice program, higher education without taking on massive debt opens doors that weren’t possible before.

“It was something that made it simple and took the stress away from me,” said Jose Ramos. “A lot of times when we want to got to school, [tuition] is one of the major things — having that stress of how are we going to pay this.”

Ramos started as a “tier one” associate at the company, picking items for customer orders at Amazon’s fulfillment center in Baltimore city, which is located off Broening Highway on the southeast edge of the city, then transitioned to work with human resources in bilingual communication. He now works in an IT support role for Amazon Web Services.  Through the Amazon Career Choice program, he got certified in computer technology to get his current job in IT support,  and is currently in school to earn an associate’s degree in computer science.

“After trying out all the departments, I really wanted to educate myself a little bit more,” said Ramos, 30. “Maybe it was like a growth mentally. I learned to say, I need to finally get educated and find myself a path to a career that I want to do.”

As Amazon’s interest last year showed, upskilling and retraining was already on the minds of industry players prior to the pandemic, when unemployment was relatively low in the U.S. and the need was more focused on longer-term preparation for an economy changed by automation.

Upskilling into IT positions was already particularly appealing because of the need to fill 918,00 tech jobs, which can position folks for careers with a $60,000 a year average salary. A career in IT could make a big difference in a city like Baltimore, where the median income is $44,262 and 23.1% of people live below the poverty line according to a report from the State of Maryland.

With the economic downturn as a result of the pandemic leading to massive job losses, it is something that’s being pushed to solve the poverty and unemployment crisis across the United States. In Baltimore city, like many municipalities, the unemployment rate jumped up in March as the pandemic arrived, from 4.9% in March to 11.5% in April, per Federal Reserve data. It has steadily decreased over the course of the year, but consistently remains higher than the state average and other counties. Below is Maryland Department of Labor data showing the unemployment rate in municipalities around Maryland:

Unavailable – Unemployment Rate by County

In this environment, the tech adoption that accelerated quickly with key societal functions operating online put upskilling in the conversation not just for the “future of work,” but for the immediate recovery.  Microsoft joined in the group of companies making ambitious upskilling commitments over the summer, saying it planned to help 25 million people gain skills this year with a specific nod to the “COVID-19 economy.” In Baltimore, a group of industry and nonprofit leaders led by Catalyte launched a retraining initiative focused on roles that will be in demand. There are also some signs of interest from policymakers, as legislators in Congress introduced the U.S. Upskilling and Retraining Assistance Act to increase incentives for employers.

For its part, Amazon is continuing to hire in big numbers in the pandemic, and upskilling appears to be a way to increase the capacity of its workforce, as well. The company said 30,000 of its employees across North America have participated in the Career Choice program. In the state, the company said it has provided upskilling training to 1,100 employees.

“I come from immigrant parents. They didn’t have money to pay for me to go to school,” said Ramos. “Me not having resources to go to school and then coming into Amazon and Amazon offering to pay 95% of school was something that really was a life changer for me.”

Donte Kirby is a 2020-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.
Companies: Amazon
Series: Workforce Development Month 2020

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