Heard the news? Amazon has more than 100 million Prime members now, a milestone CEO Jeff Bezos announced last month in his annual letter to shareholders. That missive includes another detail that’s received comparatively less attention: A program Amazon calls Career Choice, an initiative it launched in 2012, has now benefited more than 16,000 associates, according to the company.
The program offers hourly employees who’ve been with the company for a year up to $12,000 in prepaid tuition to pursue degrees in any one of nearly 40 fields, many of which–like aircraft mechanics and nursing–Amazon isn’t even in. The program has been hailed as brilliant for putting the “person” above the “employee” and boosting team members’ on-the-job satisfaction–a savvy blend of altruism and self-interest.
But the real point isn’t who benefits from Career Choice, or why, or how much. It’s that Bezos is giving us an unmistakable signal for where he sees his company headed. The answer: everywhere.
The real message and mission
The first thing to note about the seven-page shareholder letter is that half of it is devoted to Bezos’s philosophy (and that that half comes first). In it, Bezos focuses on much more than just how much Amazon has grown since last year. When he speaks about customers, he calls them “divinely discontent” with “expectations that are never static.” He’s not complaining, he’s praising. In fact, he’s describing his tribe. “We didn’t ascend from our hunter-gatherer days by being satisfied,” the CEO writes. “People have a voracious appetite for a better way, and yesterday’s ‘wow’ quickly becomes today’s ‘ordinary’.”
Bezos appears to be referring to customers here, but this remark also reflects what he sees as universal. It describes Amazon’s own behavior over two decades as neatly as it describes consumer behavior. Bezos likely believes this mind-set characterizes workers as well–their experiences of feeling professionally discontent, wanting to find a better way, and having the highest standards for what they do. Career Choice, then, looks like another deeply Amazonian service, reflecting an unwavering will to serve market demand, even if that means paying for its own workers to go back to school and learn a skill that might just cause them leave the company.
But there’s more to it than that–quite a lot more, in fact. With the program, Amazon is also grooming a skilled workforce of experts (all sympathetic to Amazon) in sectors it hasn’t yet disrupted but very much intends to. And when that day comes, the ex-Amazon employees whose careers Amazon so altruistically advanced probably won’t mind returning to the mothership.
Brilliance, boldness, and very big plans
This forward thinking by Amazon isn’t new. Consider food. A few years back the company quietly piloted first Amazon Go–its own version of a convenience store, with charges linked to customers’ Amazon accounts–which was quickly followed by AmazonFresh, a food delivery service. Both initially looked like typically eccentric blips in the Bezos universe, hardly worth a notice in a company known for selling and delivering non-edible goods. In retrospect, though, they were savvy experiments leading up to Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods, marking the company’s full-court press into the grocery business.
And remember back in 2013, when Amazon kindly offered to help out a failing U.S. Postal Service by using it to deliver what is currently estimated to account for 40% of its shipments? It looks less random now that the company has secured patents for robotic couriers that would unlock doors and drop packages inside customers’ homes. And while skeptics argue that some industries, like pharmaceuticals, are too challenging for Amazon to break into, history suggests it’s unwise to underestimate even the company’s smallest moves.
Indeed, programs like Career Choice show Bezos at his crazy-as-a-fox best. By letting his employees (particularly those low on the wage ladder, whose professional-development needs other companies often ignore) learn and explore in 39 different fields, he’s exposing them and Amazon to new thinking. Range equals creativity; that “divine discontent” Bezos writes of is defining every market today. And he seems to know better than most that only a culture of creative, open minds will be equipped to march into the future when the time comes.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be back”
Amazon is always thinking about “when the time comes.” It’s willing to spend enormous amounts of money for extraordinary lengths of time on things that don’t make money, tolerating slim margins for years as a result. But that’s always been part of Bezos’s long-game strategy, which Career Choice fits into perfectly.
The program looks like an exit door, but it’s a foray. Chances are that if you’re an employee who leaves for a field Amazon isn’t in today, you’ll be there tomorrow when the tech giant makes an entrance. Even if you leave, if you’re creative and have high standards, Amazon won’t just want you back, you’ll want to come back for more of what started the whole cycle.
That’s what Bezos’s letter really lays out. Scary? If you see the contours of a “platform monopoly” in Amazon’s moves over the last few years and shudder, then this vision won’t console you. If you see the tech giant as leveraging its vast resources to skill up a segment of the workforce that’s sorely underserved, you may feel more heartened. Either way, focusing on how many devices Alexa can link to now (4,000, according to the letter) risks missing the larger point: Amazon isn’t just selling you more stuff for your home, it’s moving in.
Larry Robertson is the founder of Lighthouse Consulting and an innovation adviser who works, writes, and guides at the nexus of creativity, leadership, and entrepreneurship. He is the author of two award-winning books, The Language of Man: Learning to Speak Creativity, and A Deliberate Pause: Entrepreneurship and Its Moment in Human Progress.