NEW YORK (WCCO/AP) — Target Corp. is joining a growing list of retailers and restaurant chains offering educational assistance at select online institutions for its front-line employees in a fiercely competitive job market.

The Minneapolis-based discounter said Wednesday that it plans to spend $200 million over the next four years to offer its workers free undergraduate and associate degree programs as well as certificates in business-oriented majors at select institutions such as University of Arizona and University of Denver. Textbooks will also be free.

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Like a slew of other big corporate names like Walmart, Taco Bell and the Walt Disney Co., Target is teaming up with Guild Education, a Denver startup that negotiates deals between companies and colleges for the program. Target says it’s offering one of the most comprehensive programs.

George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, says the ultimate goal is to hire and keep workers long-term in a competitive labor force.

“A lot of companies are doing it. I might add that this is a reversal of a trend we saw over the last 20 years where companies cut back on educational benefits. Cut back on training programs. Cut back on apprenticeship programs. And those sorts of things have sort of comeback,” John said.

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Other companies are doing something similar, such as Walmart and Amazon.

Target has also increased starting wages, with employees now set to make about $15 an hour.

Target’s program will be available this fall for more than 340,000 U.S.-based part-time and full-time students. Workers, including those on the first day on the job, can attend classes at more than 40 schools, colleges and universities. They can choose from 250 business programs like computer science, operations and business management.

For those interested in pursuing educational opportunities outside of the select programs within Guild, Target says it will provide direct payments to their academic institutions of up to $5,250 for non-master’s degrees and up to $10,000 for master’s degrees each year.

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