As we look toward the future of work, it’s becoming more important than ever for companies to understand the needs of their teams, and to build solutions and products to help serve them—whether that’s through training, healthcare, or other investments. At Walmart, we’ve been very deliberate about investing in our associates, particularly over the past three years as we’ve thought about new ways to improve their lives and careers. Education is the latest iteration of that commitment.
Between historically low unemployment rates in the US and innovative technologies reshaping jobs, all businesses have a lot of work to do—both in terms of recruiting and upskilling—to attract and properly support employees throughout their careers. We believe that in retail the relationship we build between employees and customers is our competitive advantage. To help build that, we’re determined to find the best, most effective ways we can invest in and help our associates—and explore how those investments can translate to gains for the business and even society at large.
It’s essential to understand what employees need and want. From my experience at Walmart, it’s best to go directly to the employee base and ask questions. Learn how you can contribute most meaningfully to their lives and careers. An investment is more than wages. It’s healthcare, scheduling, paid time off, professional development, and more. Walmart has been making real investments in all of these areas, from expanding parental leave policies to increasing training opportunities.
Most recently, we discovered that student debt and the price of college is on top of our associates’ minds. They told us that if they want to get ahead in the U.S., they feel a secondary education is important. But it can often seem out of reach due to opportunity cost.
In response, Walmart partnered with Guild Education to create a program that gives associates access to affordable associate’s and bachelor’s degrees from a selection of top nonprofit universities. What sets our program apart is our commitment to ensuring that all our associates can enter and complete the program. We do this in several ways. Walmart subsidizes the cost beyond financial aid and an associate contribution equivalent to $1 a day. Our employees get a college education almost for free—which is life-changing. To guarantee associates receive the guidance they need, we picked schools with a strong history of supporting working adult students. We also provide associates access to Guild Education coaches who help with everything from enrollment to graduation.
The program is designed so that associates can enter with credit for the work and training they’ve already completed. Typically, formal education doesn’t give credit for that, but we believe relevant experience should be acknowledged, and it’s proven that students are more likely to graduate from college if they enter with existing credits.
Looking toward the future, we chose degree programs in business or supply chain management that are relevant to jobs at Walmart, but that are also comprehensive and reach across several industries. This better prepares our associates for career opportunities inside and outside of Walmart. We fully expect to add more degree programs moving forward. The Guild Education program is a clear win for associates, like Sara, who shared this comment with us recently:
“When I had to drop out of college a few years ago, I always said I would go back someday. It’s a scary thing, deciding to go back to school, but with all the resources Walmart offers you, it’s so much easier than you think. You’re not alone in your journey to better yourself. I’m so thankful that I’ve been given this opportunity. Thanks to Walmart and Guild, I’m now a full-time college student.” -Sara Smith, Personal Shopper, Mineral Wells, TX
The Guild Education program is also a clear win for Walmart. With the right planning, the benefits of investing in employees can outweigh the costs. For example, when Walmart announced the Guild Education program, we saw a substantial increase in applications and a huge halo effect from our associates who are thrilled to work for a company that values its employees. This kind of reputation can help attract (and keep) more satisfied employees, decreasing costly turnover.
This halo effect extends to the communities we serve. We’ve found through surveys that about 20% of customer satisfaction is tied to how you treat your employees. Being known as a thoughtful employer matters a lot to people—and it drives our brand.
We’ve also seen that when we’ve invested in benefits such as training and better wages, employees become more engaged and motivated. For instance, after committing $2.7 billion to raising wages and employee training, we found that associate engagement increased dramatically. In turn, customer service scores on whether our stores are “clean, fast, and friendly” rose for more than 90 weeks straight and revenue subsequently increased.
At its best, investing in employees isn’t just about the business. In many ways, our stores and associates are a reflection of society. Sixty-four million working Americans don’t have the degree they need to secure an economic future due to outside factors like opportunity cost and finances. Just like any other industry, education is ripe for change. Walmart’s scale gives us the ability to help accelerate that and improve people’s lives, starting with our own associates.
Retail jobs are more involved and complicated than they were five or ten years ago. It’s estimated that a third of the US workforce will need to develop new skills in order to hold their jobs by 2030. Walmart has over a million associates in the US—we need to find cost-effective ways to train them.
Education plays a huge part in the solution. And while formal education is extremely valuable, our answer isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. We also help our associates get GEDs, complete high school diplomas, and learn within our own ecosystem through Walmart Academies.
These dedicated spaces provide our front-line hourly supervisors and salaried management with consistent, hands-on training that helps them identify career paths within the company. We’ve designed our programs to ensure that our associates learn throughout their careers as new technologies and advancements emerge. We will continue to make sure our people have the skills that they’re going to need in order to be able to do the jobs of tomorrow at Walmart, whether that’s creating new programs or introducing technology like virtual reality.
This work doesn’t stop inside Walmart’s four walls. Through the Walmart Foundation, we also launched the Retail Opportunity Initiative, a five-year $100 million effort. In collaboration with leading nonprofits, employers, government agencies, and educational institutions, we aim to identify and implement innovations that will enable workers to advance their careers in retail or adjacent sectors by building transferable skills.
Empowered by a formal education, training, and other meaningful investments, today’s employees have the opportunity to emerge as the strong, knowledgeable leaders of tomorrow.
Drew Holler is Walmart’s US vice president of people innovation.