Walmart Academy trains better managers, but will they have a better future? (2024)

Walmart Academy is one of the largest employer training programs in the country, but it is not clear whether it teaches workers valuable skills that could enable them to move into the middle class or whether it is mostly making them better Wal-Mart employees.

FULTON, N.Y. — The procession started in toys, marched through electronics, down into grocery and past the registers at the front end.

Fifty-one men and women, dressed in shimmering blue and yellow caps and gowns, walked through the Wal-Mart to receive certificates on a stage set up in the store’s lawn and garden department. A bagpiper, wearing a kilt, led the graduates through the aisles.

For Roy Walts, it was the first time he had ever graduated from anything.

He dropped out of school in the ninth grade after his father died of cancer and his stepmother told him to leave the house. At 15, he lived in a Salvation Army clothing collection box. One Christmas night he ate cookies from a dumpster.

So as Walts, 53, crossed the stage that April morning in front of the local mayor, Wal-Mart’s regional manager for upstate New York, and his son, who had worked overnight stocking freezers, he had butterflies in his stomach.

“I thought for sure I would trip walking up on that stage,” recalled Walts, the automotive-department manager.

Walts is a graduate of Walmart Academy, one of the largest employer-training programs in the country. Since March 2016, Wal-Mart has put more than 150,000 of its store supervisors and department managers through the training, which teaches things like merchandising and how to motivate employees over several weeks.

An additional 380,000 entry-level workers have taken part in a separate training program called Pathways. Most of these workers receive a $1-an-hour raise for completing the course.

Wal-Mart has spent $2.7 billion on training and raising wages for 1.2 million of its store workers during the past two years — an investment that reflects the pressures the company faces in the retail industry.

Fighting Amazon for sales, Wal-Mart is trying to make its stores more pleasant places to shop. That requires a well-trained workforce with a sense of purpose and self-worth, qualities that can be difficult to nurture in lower-wage workers.

But it is not clear whether all this training is teaching workers valuable skills that could enable them to move into the middle class or whether it is mostly making them better Wal-Mart employees.

And even with more skills, many retail workers may never be able to earn what factory workers made in places like Fulton, a faded manufacturing hub near Syracuse.

“It is going to be very hard to replace what we’ve lost,” said Fulton’s mayor, Ronald Woodward. “Retail jobs don’t compare to manufacturing.”

The academy is geared to more experienced supervisors and department managers. Working in classrooms set up in 150 Wal-Marts around the country, employees learn how to calculate profit and loss statements and how to run their department like a small business.

Managers are also taught to get to know their employees and understand their home lives.

Wal-Mart was once considered to be a pariah of rural America, vilified by some for wiping out local businesses by selling cheap goods made in China. Now, Wal-Mart is rebranding itself as a company focused on the needs of its workers and the fate of small towns and hardscrabble cities.

In the past year, Wal-Mart has spent about $650,000 running television ads about Walmart Academy, according to Alphonso, a TV data company. It has spent $17.6 million on an ad highlighting the company’s commitment to buy $250 billion in goods made or grown in America. That ad features scenes of factory workers and their families set to the squeals of Aerosmith’s “Dream On.”

“The caps and gowns, the symbolism, these are not trivial things,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

“They are trying to create this feeling among employees that ‘we are the store.’ They are taking small-town America and putting it into Wal-Mart. Is that a bad thing? No.”

Other researchers say what many Wal-Mart workers need most is not training, but higher wages. The training programs, they say, may be helpful in boosting employee loyalty and performance, but increasing pay would benefit the workers most.

Two years ago, the company raised its starting wage to $9 an hour, a $1.75 increase from the federal minimum wage.

Fulton, a city of about 11,400 people, was once home to a factory that made Nestlé Crunch bars. The company shut the factory and moved operations to Wisconsin in 2003 to consolidate its production facilities and “increase the utilization of assets,” a Nestlé spokeswoman said in an email.

“I think what everyone misses most,” said Geoff Raponi, manager of the Fulton Wal-Mart Supercenter, “is the smell.”

They also miss the jobs — more than 1,500 of them when the factory was booming in the mid-1980s, according to Woodward, the mayor. The local Wal-Mart has about 300 employees.

Woodward, who is serving his third four-year term as mayor, appreciates Wal-Mart’s training program, but he says he thinks it will take more to save his city’s economy.

The mayor did not have the heart to tell the store employees that the Wal-Mart was not technically in his city. The store lists a Fulton mailing address but is actually in the neighboring town of Granby. That means Fulton misses out on the property-tax revenue the store generates.

Woodward appreciates that the supercenter provides steady jobs during a tough economic time. But in his mind, these are not the kind of jobs that earned Fulton the nickname “the largest small city in the state.”

“You could graduate from high school, work at a place like Nestlé, buy a car and send your kids to college,” Woodward said.

When the Nestlé plant was roaring in 1985, the average wage in Oswego County, which includes Fulton, was about $51,000. Today, the average pay is 18 percent less, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Wal-Mart declined to disclose the wages at the Fulton store. But the company said that at its stores in New York state, full-time workers earned an average of $14.10 an hour. Part-time workers make an average of $11.10 an hour.

The company says its training programs are intended to help employees advance into higher-paying jobs at Wal-Mart or in other industries.

“Whether they are coming to us for two years or 20 years, we want them to have the skills that allow them to create opportunities,” said Kathleen McLaughlin, who runs the Walmart Foundation and also holds the title chief sustainability officer.

About a month ago, Wal-Mart employee Ashley VanHorn, 27, was stocking shelves in the Fulton store when she overheard two little girls tell their father they wanted to work at Wal-Mart one day.

“You can do better than this,” VanHorn recalled the man telling them.

Working at Wal-Mart was never part of VanHorn’s plan, either. She wanted to be a social worker, but a few credits shy of getting her degree at a community college, she became pregnant and dropped out. Soon after, she got a job at Wal-Mart.

She started in the health and beauty department and eventually moved to grocery, where she now manages dry goods. Her manager says VanHorn, who earns about $15 an hour, has what it takes to be a salaried assistant manager overseeing several departments and making nearly $20,000 more a year.

But VanHorn worries that the longer hours as an assistant manager would mean less time with her two children. She also hopes to go back to college someday.

On graduation day, VanHorn did not know what to expect. Like many of the graduates in her Walmart Academy class, she had never taken part in a graduation ceremony because she did not finish high school.

“This was not the dream,” she said. “But the dream does change.”

Walmart Academy trains better managers, but will they have a better future? (2024)


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