Press Release

What CVS And Amazon Know: Investing In Upskilling Works For Employees And Businesses

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Donovan Taylor was an information technology consultant in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who had grown tired of hustling for contracts and wanted something stable. He landed a job at an Amazon warehouse but hoped for more. His goal? “Taking a step back, educating myself, and then moving forward.”

Amazon faced a big challenge of its own: hiring enough equipment maintenance technicians to support the type of warehouses that Taylor was working in.

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Amazon partnered with Unmudl to create a training program for mechatronics workers. Two years in, Amazon is filling these jobs and experiencing higher productivity and lower turnover. RUSTY RUTHERFORD

It was an all-too-common situation. Seventy-five percent of employers globally reported difficulty filling roles, more than double the percentage a decade ago, according to Manpower Group. And yet, there are millions of workers, like Taylor, who are already on the job but want to advance.

Employer-backed talent development programs are a solution to this dilemma. Facilitating employees’ lifelong learning will build long-term relationships with individuals who have the desire and aptitude to find new ways to bring value to the organizations for which they work.

Two organizations, Unmudl and Escalate, demonstrate how quickly this approach can bear fruit for both companies and workers.

Unmudl: Every Learner Gets a Job. Every Company Has Talent to Grow.

In a rapidly evolving economy, organizations cannot afford to make their employees choose between work and learning. Programs like Unmudl make it easier for workers to add new skills to their toolbox without sacrificing their day job.

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An IT consultant who was looking for new ways to contribute at work, Donovan Taylor enrolled in Unmudl’s training program with Amazon and will soon start a new career in mechatronics and robotics. COURTESY OF CATHERINE JONES

Taylor heard about a course offered by Unmudl from friends in Amazon’s Reliability Maintenance Engineering department. He signed up, finished the course, and today is enrolled in Amazon’s Mechatronics and Robotics Apprenticeship with a guarantee of a new job when he completes the program in June.

Unmudl is a pioneering skills-to-jobs marketplace that launched in 2019. In late 2021, it partnered with Amazon to create the customized 10-12-week online course, called “Introduction to Mechatronics for Equipment Maintenance,” that Taylor took.

Unmudl is the brainchild of Parminder K. Jassal.

Her idea for the company goes back to her years attending Southwestern Community College in Creston, Iowa. That is where she discovered the plight of “working learners,” individuals who were holding down jobs while going to school or while trying to forge a path toward advancement. Raised in India, Jassal had enrolled in the Iowa college to improve her English language skills and quickly learned how indispensable these institutions are. “If it wasn’t for the community college, I wouldn’t have a career,” she says. “In fact, most people who attend wouldn’t have a career today.”

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Parminder K. Jassal is founder of Unmudl, a pioneering skills-to-jobs marketplace created in 2019 to train workers for jobs that are difficult to fill. COURTESY OF PARMINDER K JASSAL

Nearly three-quarters of public two-year college students work while enrolled, according to the Community College Research Center, with 46% working full time. Jassal recognized that if she could bring these institutions together with employers, it would take away the false choice between work and learning and might solve problems for both businesses and the people they employ.

In 2018, Jassal founded, a public benefit corporation to support working learners. Its flagship product, Unmudl, was developed the following year with five U.S. community colleges and the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development at the University of Texas in Austin.

Most workforce development programs have a difficult time keeping up with changing business needs and ensuring a strong link between program completers and jobs. Unmudl overcomes these barriers by partnering with employers to create courses to train current and prospective employees for jobs that are difficult to fill because they require specific skills not often found in traditional pathways or training programs. Students get credit toward their community college degree and dramatically improve their chances of finding well-paying jobs and stable careers.

The company’s first big client was Amazon. Amanda Willard, a workforce development strategist at the company, immediately realized Unmudl was on to something. Amazon was investing $1.2 billion to upskill and retain talent and had a particular interest in hiring mechatronics workers. While mechatronics requires a very specific, interdisciplinary skillset encompassing mechanical engineering, electronics, and computer programming, ultimately anyone with an interest and desire to learn can tackle the task. The company needed to hire 1,000 Robotics Maintenance II workers per year.

Investing in building the skills of workers who are productive and motivated to expand their contributions seemed to be a clear win. So, to encourage Amazon employees to enroll in Unmudl’s mechatronics course, the company agreed to pay tuition upfront. Non-employees, meanwhile, were guaranteed a job interview after completing the course and those hired would have their tuition reimbursed six months after their start date.

Less than two years after the course was created in 2022, Amazon has seen an increase in productivity, a lowering of recruitment costs, and a stronger workforce development pipeline. Jobs that used to be open for 60 days are now filled within 40. Simply by reducing time-to-hire, Amazon was able to recoup the minimal costs associated with helping to create the course.

“Unmudl is a fantastic partner who works in lockstep,” Willard says. “They come to the table with expertise, a willingness to learn and listen, and help support both our employer and learner needs in a very collaborative and agile way.”

Unmudl’s menu of online courses is scalable and its platform offers employers a searchable database of learners with certifications and trainings that can quickly be matched to their staffing needs. Today, the company offers 180 courses through 13 community colleges and has provided 106 employers with newly trained workers. It expects its current level of 2,200 enrolled students to reach 10,000 by the end of this year.

“Right now, the way that you get your skills, your credentials, the way you get a job, everything is messy,” says Jassal. “Our role is to un-muddle a working learner’s life, un-muddle the processes for community and technical colleges, and the hiring issues of employers.”

Back in Albuquerque, Taylor is looking forward to finishing up his mechatronics apprenticeship at Amazon and starting his new job. But, at age 40, he’s been around long enough to know how fast things can change in the modern employment landscape. With that in mind, he is already thinking about taking another Unmudl course to sharpen his skills and challenge himself.

“A long time ago, I realized that if you think you already know everything, then you stop learning,” says Taylor. “Knowledge is power. If you have enough knowledge, no one can control you. There is really no point in stopping the learning process.”

Escalate: Working with Companies to Retain Talent and Reduce Turnover Costs

Turnover is another enormous issue for companies. Among front-line retail workers alone, this upheaval is generally higher than 60%, costing a staggering $40 billion annually. There are many factors that contribute to turnover, including when workers see no path to grow or develop in their job. This absence demotivates and keeps frontline workers from progressing along their careers where their strengths are utilized, and their own goals met.

Escalate, a customizable platform that provides training and support to front-line workers and their employers to reduce turnover, is one solution. In February 2024, it began a partnership with CVS Health Corporation to help the company fill middle skills jobs like store manager and IT help desk positions. Escalate and CVS accomplish this by offering front-line workers — those who carry out essential tasks like customer service, production, and service delivery — pathways to advancement with free training programs and by addressing recurring problems with absenteeism.

“Boomers are retiring and we’re not replacing the population as fast, so companies are going to need to invest in non-traditional sources of talent if they're going to survive,” says Escalate Co-Founder and President Sienna Daniel. “With our data from the CVS partnership, we’ll be able to show other companies that by investing a minimal amount, they can upskill people already working in these front-line roles to provide the talent they need for the future.”

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Growing up, Escalate Co-Founder and President Sienna Daniel witnessed how difficult it was for family members in front-line jobs to advance. COURTESY OF SEAN SEGAL

Growing up, Daniel lived in a predominantly white and wealthy suburb her parents had chosen so she and her siblings could attend top notch public schools. They rented townhomes, went into debt, and did whatever it took to keep their daughters in the district. But Daniel realized as she got older her parents were working hourly wage jobs with no real room for advancement, no matter how hard they worked or how smart she knew they were.

“Many of my extended family members are stuck in the same frontline hourly jobs, just like my parents, with no clear path for them to attain a family-sustaining wage,” she said.

Daniel wanted to find ways to eliminate barriers to social mobility in historically marginalized populations so that all people could have access to opportunity.

After teaching high school and college, Daniel met her future business partner, Sean Segal.

Both went on to become part of the founding executive team of Generation USA, a nonprofit that runs bootcamps to help unemployed workers find jobs. The organization was successful, serving about 2,500 people per year, but when the team approached companies armed with convincing data about why hiring their graduates made business sense, they were invariably shuffled off to corporate social responsibility departments.

“We were viewed as a charity, not a business solution,” says Segal.

The way to make companies take them seriously, Daniel and Segal decided, was to create a for-profit business that would succeed not because companies wanted to be charitable, but because they wanted a business partner who could help them solve a problem.

The two left their executive jobs at Generation USA and started Escalate in 2022. The organization helps front-line workers advance by addressing some of the barriers, like balancing work with family or finding reliable transportation, that do not signal anything about a person’s skills or ability to do a job, but can result in absenteeism or other problems. To address problems getting to work, for example, Escalate offers automated solutions like text message check-ins and an Uber code for those who encounter car trouble. For employees who need more long-term remedies for their life challenges, it offers live coaching sessions.

Next, to help workers move up in a company, Escalate uses artificial intelligence and machine learning to identify the most overlooked workers and create a pathway for advancement based on the company’s needs and each worker’s talents and interests. Employees get access to free, asynchronous training for which they can receive industry recognized credentials. Completion of the training, which takes 12 to 18 months, can help workers move from jobs where they make $12 to $15 per hour to salaried positions paying $50,000 to $70,000 per year.

For CVS, Escalate meant getting a fresh pipeline of people who already knew its culture and business to fill hard-to-source positions in areas like health care, IT support, and store management at minimal cost. The average front-line retail employee lasts 90 days, and it can cost $12,000 to replace them, Segal says. For every 50 employees that stay eight months in Escalate’s program, CVS could save a million dollars in turnover costs alone.

“For these large companies with hundreds of thousands of employees,” said Daniel, “there’s a really big upside to invest these dollars that they've already allocated and are sitting in their budget just waiting to be spent.”

Escalate expects to train 1,500 front-line workers this year, 6,000 next year, and 24,000 in 2026.

“I view this as the culmination of our life’s work,” said Segal.

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Sean Segal is co-founder of Escalate, a for-profit business that works with other companies to retain their talent and reduce turnover costs. COURTESY OF SIENNA DANIEL

Win-Win: Filling Talent Gaps with Contribution-Minded Workers

Programs like Unmudl and Escalate are win-wins for employees and employers.

According to Gallup, companies that offer development opportunities and invest in their employees' growth are 3.5 times more likely to have engaged employees, reducing turnover by 24%. Key drivers of employee engagement are purpose, development, focusing on strengths, a caring manager, and ongoing, open conversations.

Additionally, 65% of workers believe employer-provided upskilling is very important when evaluating a potential new job, according to Gallup, and 48% of U.S. workers would switch to a new job if it offered skills training opportunities.

Employers are reporting a satisfying return on investment from these training programs and workers are benefitting as well. The average salary increases for U.S. employees who participated in upskilling programs was 8.6%, Gallup says, about $8,000 higher, on average, than those who did not.

Companies with persistent job gaps can fill those holes by developing their own strategies and programs for talent development that motivate employees to find new ways to contribute at every stage of their career.

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