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Amazon's worker-education program: A 'sweatshop' cover-up?
The company launches a generous program to help new employees pick up high-demand skills, but some doubt that Amazon is doing it out of the goodness of its heart
 
In the face of public scrutiny over Amazon's warehouse conditions, CEO Jeff Bezos announced a new corporate-sponsored education program.
In the face of public scrutiny over Amazon's warehouse conditions, CEO Jeff Bezos announced a new corporate-sponsored education program.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

This week, visitors to Amazon's homepage were greeted with an open letter from CEO Jeff Bezos seeking employees for the company's storage and distribution warehouses. The main draw is a new education initiative called the Amazon Career Choice Program, which will pay up to $8,000 over four years to equip employees with "high demand" skills in engineering, information technology, or nursing. Bezos also touted improved safety conditions at Amazon's warehouses, which have been criticized as "sweatshops" after reports that employees at one warehouse were working in 100-plus-degree temperatures and needed medical care. So, while some praised Bezos' education drive, others saw a huge public relations stunt. Is the worker-education program a sweatshop cover-up?

No. Amazon's program is a game-changer: "Amazon is setting the bar for" corporate-sponsored education programs, says Gery Menegaz at ZDNet, ramping up its efforts while other companies are cutting back in this area. Amazon prides itself on being a pioneering force, and this program distinguishes itself "by not mandating that the education be relevant to the employee's current position...." With so much anxiety over America's failure to compete with other countries in the race for highly skilled workers, "here is an innovation that could help to catch us up."
"Amazon's innovative new program sets the bar for education"

Sorry. This is a cynical ploy to improve its image: It's suspicious that Amazon would use "its massively trafficked front page to broadcast this program," says Will Oremus at Slate. "In an economy full of unemployed people desperate for work," it's unlikely that Amazon needs "to blast all of its millions of customers to find a few hundred new applicants." The unemployed are not "the only intended audience here" — with the bad publicity surrounding its shoddy working conditions, Amazon is sprucing up its image by cynically offering "generous-sounding perks that could contribute to the economy as a whole."
"Amazon hijacks its own front page to announce jobs initiative"

And the program could have a short shelf life: Bezos clearly wants to "give customers a warm and fuzzy feeling about shopping at Amazon," says Tricia Duryee at AllThingsD. Bezos highlights the "unusual" nature of the program, which offers workers a career path outside Amazon and directs them toward positions more remunerative than warehouse work. But conspicuously, "Bezos made no long-term commitment to the program." He described the program, like other Amazon innovations, as merely an "experiment."
"Amazon homepage splashes big news (for a small audience)"

 

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