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College credit for working your job? Walmart and McDonald’s are trying it

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College credit for working your job? Walmart and McDonald’s are trying it

Bonnie Boop is now a people lead at Walmart in Huntsville, Ala. She received college credit for a company training program, graduating with a bachelor’s degree last year.

Andi Rice for NPR/Andi Rice for NPR


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Andi Rice for NPR/Andi Rice for NPR

When Walmart stopped requiring college degrees for most of its corporate jobs last year, the company confronted three deep truths about work and schooling:

A college diploma is only a proxy for what someone knows, and not always a perfect one. A degree’s high cost sidelines many people. For industries dominated by workers without degrees, cultivating future talent demands a different playbook.

Some of the nation’s largest employers, including Walmart and McDonald’s, are now broaching a new frontier in higher education: convincing colleges to give retail and fast-food workers credit for what they learn on the job, counting toward a degree.

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Behind the scenes, executives often paint a grander transformation of hiring, a world where your resume will rely less on titles or diplomas and act more like a passport of skills you’ve proven you have.

For now, companies and educators are only starting to chip away at one of the first steps: figuring out how much college credit a work skill is worth.

Getting credit for Walmart training

Something unusual happened to Bonnie Boop one semester.

She’d returned to college in her late 40s using Walmart’s tuition-assistance program after joining the company as a part-time stocker. In her younger years, she had gotten two associate degrees, so her children used to joke that she might as well say she’d gone to school for four years. But to her, it wasn’t the same.

“Bachelor’s degrees tend to open more doors,” Boop says. Plus, she says, she persisted for “the principle of it all.”

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At Walmart, Boop stocked health and beauty aisles in the evenings after another day job. Later, she went full time and got promoted to supervise others. This required new training at “Walmart Academy”: brief, intensive courses on leadership, financial decision-making and workforce planning.

Exterior view of a Walmart and its parking lot in Huntsville, Alabama.

Walmart and a few other companies are working with colleges to figure out how to convert skills — or at least trainings — done at work into college credit.

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Then one day, looking at Boop’s upcoming business-operations class at Southern New Hampshire University, which Boop attended online from Alabama, her adviser found the record showing she’d already taken the course.

“But I didn’t,” Boop says. “And she said, ‘Yes, you got credit from Walmart Academy.’ And I said, what?”

Through corporate training and certificates that convert to college credit, Walmart Academy aims to get workers as far as halfway to a college degree, the organization’s chief told NPR. Boop had done several such programs, which let her bypass two college courses.

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At her rate of study, “that would have been two semesters’ worth,” Boop says. “I was like, wow!”

Studying while also holding down a job meant staying up late after her shift that ended at 11 p.m. and keeping a meticulous schedule of big school projects to do on her days off. After 2 1/2 years of this, expedited by her associate degrees, Boop watched her photo slide across the screen at the virtual graduation in December.

Wearing her cap and gown, she posed for photos with her new diploma: Bachelor of Science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology. Today, Boop is her store’s “people lead” overseeing more than 200 workers.

What’s in it for corporations?

Many American universities have long offered credit for corporate training by companies like Google, IBM or Microsoft. For work in retail and fast food, the process is nascent.

McDonald’s is working with several community colleges to build a path for converting on-the-job skills, like safe food handling or customer service, into credit toward degrees in culinary arts, hospitality or insurance. Walmart has over a dozen short-form certificates and 25 training courses — in tech, leadership, digital operations — that translate to credit at partner universities. The car-service chain Jiffy Lube has its own college credit program, too.

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“For adults who feel like they weren’t college material, what we are able to do is say, ‘You are. And you’re doing college-level work already,’” says Amber Garrison Duncan, who runs the nonprofit Competency-Based Education Network that connects employers and higher-education institutions.

Educators hope this brings more students into the fold — expanding access to education and allowing more people to achieve better-paying, more-secure careers with less debt and fewer years of juggling work and study.

For companies that offer tuition assistance to employees, the idea that work skills should count toward college credit makes financial sense: It means a student spends less time in school and doesn’t have to pay for classes that would teach them something they already know.

And paying for tuition can attract workers in a competitive labor market and keep them longer, slowing turnover, saving money on recruitment and training, and cultivating more loyalty to the employer.

Bonnie Boop became her store's people lead within weeks of completing her courses for the bachelor of science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology.

Bonnie Boop became her store’s people lead within weeks of completing her courses for the Bachelor of Science in business administration, with a concentration in industrial organizational psychology.

Andi Rice/for NPR

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McDonald’s and Amazon executives say this is exactly their motivation, noting that many people use their jobs as stepping stones to elsewhere. Walmart’s executives differ, saying that their goal is to build a pipeline of talent from the front lines to open positions within the company.

The U.S. military paved the way, but it’s not the same

Counting existing knowledge toward a degree is not a radical idea. Plenty of high school students get a head start on college with credit for AP, or “advanced placement,” classes. Many colleges also offer “credit for prior learning” that lets students skip foreign-language classes if they’re already fluent — or test out of courses through special exams or assessments.

The U.S. military took the idea further in recent decades. It worked with the American Council on Education to build a comprehensive database of how its jobs and training programs translate to college credit.

“There’s no rule about what colleges and universities have to accept,” says ACE’s Derrick Anderson. “But they can look at the person’s military record … and they figure out how much credit they want to award.”

This and other education support made the military “a powerful engine of socioeconomic mobility,” Anderson says. His group’s database of recommended credit now spans work experience beyond the military: government, nonprofits, apprenticeships.

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“What I see working with employers, higher education and workforce organizations is a growing understanding that work and learning have been two silos in the past and can’t be two silos in the future,” says Haley Glover, director of Aspen Institute’s UpSkill America initiative.

What about skills simply gained by working?

For now, most of the college credit for work experience focuses on “prior learning” that’s taught in a classroom — standardized, structured and measurable enough to fit rigid criteria — such as training or certification programs.

Figuring out how to map on-the-job skills gained otherwise is the big leap.

“It’s a complex thing,” Glover says. “It requires an employer to be very rigorous about how they’re codifying and assessing, and that’s a capacity that a lot of employers don’t have. It also requires institutions of learning to be very open and progressive.”

Bonnie Boop, a Wal-Mart employee, works as a People Lead at one of the Huntsville, AL, stores on Sunday, June 30, 2024. Boop is a recipient of Wal-Mart's tuition assistance program, which has helped finance the completion of her college degree.

Bonnie Boop started at Walmart as a part-time stocking associate and returned to college using the company’s tuition-assistance program.

Andi Rice/for NPR

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Historically, some colleges have allowed students to present a portfolio, diligently documenting learnings on and off the job.

The McDonald’s pilot program is considering how this could work for restaurant employees. Some schools offer a separate course, for example, specifically for compiling a work-skills portfolio.

But expanding this system to the retail and food-service universe would require an army of academics willing to perform individual reviews. That’s a tremendous amount of time, and professors are often hesitant to commit — especially if it means they’d miss out on a potential student.

“This definitely is a process that disrupts what traditional higher ed is used to, in terms of seat time — credit for sitting in a class and doing assignments,” says Brianne McDonough at the workforce development nonprofit Jobs for the Future. “It’s a big change.”

Then, there are more basic challenges. Many workers simply don’t know about their employers’ education offers or struggle to navigate the application bureaucracies. They often receive little scheduling leeway to balance their working and studying hours.

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“Shockingly tragic” was how Anderson described the small share of workers taking advantage of corporate college perks.

That’s partly why hiring and education officials talk about a “skills-first approach” to higher education — a future of short-form certificates and credentials weighed on par with college degrees.

“This is a problem that a lot of companies are trying to solve for,” says Lorraine Stomski, who heads Walmart’s learning and leadership programs. “What are the rules of the future?”

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Lifestyle

Sunday Puzzle: Can you guess these stars?

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Sunday Puzzle: Can you guess these stars?

Sunday Puzzle

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On-air challenge: Every answer today is the name of a famous person past or present, in which the first two letters of the first name followed by the first two letters of the last name spell a four-letter word. I’ll give you the four-letter words and the famous people’s fields. You give me their names.
 

Ex. LINE, Action film star  –>  Liam Neeson

1. NEAR, Astronaut

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2. ROAM, Explorer

3. DUEL, Jazz musician

4. PARE, Colonial patriot

5. SEGO, Singer/actress

6. NITE, Inventor

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7. WISH, Playwright/poet

8. WISH, Puzzlemaster

Last week’s challenge: I was at the 184th convention of the National Puzzlers’ League, in Dallas. It’s a four-day event of word puzzles and games shared with about 160 fellow enthusiasts. One of these is Sandy Weisz, of Chicago, who sent me this puzzle: Think of a famous actor and a famous actress who co-starred in a classic movie of the past. The actress’s first name, when reversed, and the actor’s last name, spelled forward, are similar romantic gifts. Who are these film stars?

Challenge answer: Meg Ryan > gem-> Billy Crystal (“When Harry Met Sally”)

Winner: Darryl Nester of Bluffton, Ohio
 

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This week’s challenge: This challenge comes from listener Mark Scott, of Seattle. Take the name of a famous actor of the past. Say it out loud, and phonetically you’ll describe what a famous general’s horse did. Who is the actor and who is the general?

 

Submit Your Answer

If you know the answer to the challenge, submit it here by Thursday, July 25th at 3 p.m. ET. Listeners whose answers are selected win a chance to play the on-air puzzle. Important: include a phone number where we can reach you.

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“Who is buying this?!” Has Erewhon’s ‘raw animal smoothie’ taken L.A. health food too far?

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“Who is buying this?!” Has Erewhon’s ‘raw animal smoothie’ taken L.A. health food too far?

I was at a cocktail party a few months ago in Studio City when, suddenly, one conversation rose above the din of guest’s chatter, and quickly arrived at a consensus: Erewhon had gone too far.

“Animal organs, ground up!” one guest squealed, crinkling his nose.

“Oh my god, yes,” his friend agreed. “Erewhon’s smoothies are Out. Of. Control!”

They were referring to the luxury grocery store’s “Raw Animal Smoothie,” a concoction of Kefir (fermented milk), beef organs, so-called Immunomilk (freeze-dried cow’s colostrum, which is its initial breast milk after giving birth), raw honey, blueberries, bananas, lucuma fruit sweetener, coconut cream, sea salt and maple syrup.

The beverage is one of many celebrity and influencer collaborations within Erewhon’s extended smoothie universe. This one credited to fitness influencer Dr. Paul Saladino, author of “The Carnivore Code,” who proselytizes the health benefits of eating animal organs. He says they aid with immunity, gut health, weight loss and bone strength, among other things. His Austin-based company, Heart & Soil, provides the beef organs and Immunomilk for Erewhon’s Raw Animal Smoothie. Erewhon’s website describes it as having a “creamy texture with a hint of sweetness and a touch of tartness.”

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You may be thinking: Ew. And also: How? But, despite the smoothie’s official name — “Dr. Paul’s Raw Animal-Based Smoothie” — there’s one giant asterisk to this gambit. Erewhon says the mix of uncooked beef livers, hearts, pancreases, kidneys and spleens swirling through the coconut cream in the beverage should not be considered “raw.”

“They’re desiccated, or freeze-dried, to preserve the organs as a nutrient-dense powder,” a representative of the store said via email.

Erewhon’s Organic Tonic Bars, where their frothy smoothies are made fresh to order, have cultivated a posh scene unto themselves. Lithe, well-groomed customers in Gucci flip flops and leisurewear regularly crowd these areas at all times of the day in Erewhon’s 10 L.A. locations.

New smoothie partnerships, developed in conjunction with — and heavily promoted by — celebrities and social media stars are announced regularly. Others include Kendall Jenner’s $23 “Peaches and Cream Smoothie,” the most expensive on the menu, and a recently released “Sunscreen Smoothie,” a sea blue and cloudy swirl inspired by the sunscreen brand Vacation. “Hailey Bieber’s $19 Strawberry Glaze Skin Smoothie” is by far the store’s most popular since debuting in 2022 alongside Bieber’s skincare line, Rhode.

But the Raw Animal Smoothie, which debuted on the menu a year ago, might be the store’s biggest conversation-starter yet.

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“Who is buying this?!” one shopper ranted on TikTok. “I just can’t — like, it makes me want to barf looking at the ingredients. If you are super-rich and you’re spending your money on this smoothie, if this is something you’re into, I need some explanations.”

There are scores of people online who’ve filmed their own taste-tests, plenty of them positive.

“You can feel the iron in this. It’s a little bit beefy,” a fan of the drink said in a TikTok post captioned “Worth it.”

The drink may be clickbait, but it also speaks to a growing lifestyle trend that espouses going back to basics. And by that, we mean the Neanderthal era. A step beyond trends like the Paleo (or caveman) diet, it includes eating raw meat; rising and sleeping with the rhythms of the sun; and “barefoot” walking or running in thin or no shoes (or sneakers with the bottom cut out).

A selection of smoothie’s including Dr. Pauls Raw Animal-Based Smoothie are seen at Erewhon in Culver City.

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(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

Erewhon’s Raw Animal Smoothie fits right into this. But at what cost? With an outbreak of H5N1 “bird flu” sweeping through dairy cows in the U.S., is it safe to ingest unpasteurized milk right now — or ever?

For the record:

10:05 a.m. July 19, 2024An earlier version of this article stated that four cases of “bird flu” have been detected in humans since March. Nine have been detected.

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Only nine cases of “bird flu” have been detected in humans since March, so the current public health risk is low, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says. But it recommends avoiding unpasteurized dairy in general, as drinking raw milk “can lead to serious health risks, especially for certain vulnerable populations,” it states on its website.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration adds that it’s unclear as to whether or not the H5N1 viruses can be transmitted through consuming raw colostrum from infected cows. But it advises against drinking unpasteurized milk ever, as it may harbor germs leading to serious health issues, such as Salmonella, E. coli and Listeria.

What about raw meat, freeze-dried or otherwise? No, says the United States Department of Agriculture.

“There are a lot of different trends now with people encouraging eating raw meat, but the reality is it’s still a really risky thing to do without knowing if there is bacteria causing food borne illnesses,” said USDA Food Safety Specialist, Meredith Carothers. “When you reduce the moisture — basically dry it out [by freeze-drying] — the bacteria might not be able to multiply and thrive, but it does not kill it.”

Erewhon stands behind the “nutrient dense” ingredients in its Raw Animal Smoothie, but makes one thing clear: “We are not a healthcare provider, and we do not make health claims about our products. If you are interested in exploring health benefits, we encourage you to explore the scientific literature on the smoothie’s ingredients,” the representative said.

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Obviously, Erewhon’s gleaming produce aisles are a far cry from a doctor’s office. But the store’s comment lays plain an important distinction: Erewhon doesn’t take responsibility for your health, just for making you feel healthy.

With that in mind, I took my health into my own hands, and made a trip to the Silver Lake Erewhon.

The raw smoothie has been popular, cashier Ahly Guevara told me. She doesn’t drink it herself, but her 70-year-old grandmother, Maria, swears by it.

“She buys one every Saturday and Sunday,” Guevara said. “It makes her feel stronger.”

A customer checks out from an Erewhon store in Culver City.

A customer checks out from an Erewhon store in Culver City.

(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

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If Maria could do it, so could I. At first sip, I gagged ever-so-slightly, visions of Looney Tunes farm animals dancing through my head. But it was a sweltering afternoon; and glistening beads of condensation dribbled down the outside of the plastic cup, which was topped with generous amounts of thick coconut cream drizzled with honey. It looked beyond refreshing.

When I was able to put the ingredients out of mind, it went down easily. The smoothie was off-the-charts yummy — rich and sweet and creamy, with notes of blueberry and banana and a lingering coconut base. Erewhon says it’s one of the store’s top-selling smoothies and is now a staple on the menu.

“This store, it’s like the Louis Vuitton of supermarkets.”

— Jordan Ben-Yehuda, Erewhon patron

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As I sipped, I noticed three customers, with identical pink-hued smoothies (unmistakably Hailey Biebers) in hand, clustered together by the entrance. The 19-year-olds were visiting Los Angeles from Arkansas for the week. On the agenda: the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Santa Monica Pier and … Erewhon. They regularly ogle the luxury store’s jewel-toned smoothies on social media and wanted a sip of the aspirational lifestyle.

“You see them on TikTok — it makes you want to be part of it,” one of them, Natalie Vivar, said of Erewhon’s smoothies.

Parsons School of Design student Jordan Ben-Yehuda , 20, added that the beverages’ high prices match the luxurious vibe of the store.

“It feels exclusive being here, it makes you feel special,” she said, awaiting her drink. “This store, it’s like the Louis Vuitton of supermarkets.”

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Even so, she wasn’t quite ready to try the Animal Smoothie.

“It doesn’t particularly appeal to me,” Ben-Yehuda said. “But if it’s marketed as healthy, and sold at a store like this, who am I to question it? It’s Erewhon.”

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Opinion: Bob Newhart showed us the extraordinary in the ordinary

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Opinion: Bob Newhart showed us the extraordinary in the ordinary

Comedian Bob Newhart pretends to speak on an antique telephone at his home in the Bel Air Estates community of Los Angeles, June 25, 2003.

Jerome T. Nakagawa/AP


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The life of Bob Newhart, who died this week at the age of 94, may remind us to see some of the glitter that can be cloaked in places that may seem like mere background.

He was working as an accountant in Chicago in the mid-1950’s, where, he used to insist, his motto was, “that’s close enough!” To relieve the tedium of cubicles and calculators, he and a friend began to concoct routines of telephone calls between historical figures.

When his friend left to take a job in New York, Newhart kept doing the phone bits, with just one side of the call.

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Like say, Abraham Lincoln’s PR man telling the president, “The next time they bug you about Grant’s drinking, tell ‘em you’re gonna find out what brand he drinks and send a case of it to all your other generals … Trust me, Abe,” the PR man reassures a skeptical Lincoln. “It’s funny. Do it!”

Or the head of a 16th century British shipping company taking a call from Sir Walter Raleigh in the New World.

“Toe-bacco?” he asks “… Let me get this straight, now, Walt, you bought 80 tons of leaves? … You can chew it? Or put it in a pipe? Or … put it on a piece of paper, and roll it up … ”

The shipping exec has to stifle his laughter. And of course, we might now regret that there wasn’t more 16th century skepticism about rolling up tobacco leaves and smoking them.

Tapes of Newhart’s routines eventually made their way to a record company. The result was the 1960 comedy album, The Button-Down Mind of Bob Newhart. The former accountant won the 1961 Album of the Year Grammy over his fellow nominees Nat King Cole, Harry Belafonte and Frank Sinatra.

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Newhart went on to have two hit sitcoms, in which he portrayed mild-seeming men, the first a Chicago psychologist, the second a Vermont innkeeper, trying to maneuver in a world of colorful characters. And of course there’s the role that introduced him to a new generation: Papa Elf in Elf.

In 2002, Newhart won the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. On the stage of the Kennedy Center that night, he told a crowd in silk and sequins, “Standing here is a long way from the accounting department at the Glidden company.”

 

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