Walmart taps technology to train front-line workers

Walmart (NYSE:WMT) is testing a new "upskilling" training program for entry level employees that provides instruction through two or three- minute, game-like computer modules.

The training, called "Pathways," is now taking place on desktop computers in the back of a store in Joplin, Missouri, The Wall Street Journal reported. In the future, the retailer plans to use tablets and smartphones to conduct the training. Walmart plans to extend the program to all of its more than 4,500 stores by early next year, a time when all but the newest employees will be making at least $10 an hour, said Kristin Oliver, exec-VP of people for U.S. operations.

There are an estimated two dozen of these workers in the Joplin store and some are long-time employees.

The focus on entry level, front-line workers, such as cashiers, cart pushers and sales associates, is unique in retail, as well as many other businesses that put training investments toward college-educated workers or those on a management track. Other companies involved in similar endeavors are McDonald's, Starbucks, Gap, CVS, Kaiser Permanente and UPS.

One benefit is reducing high turnover in the lower-skilled retail ranks—about 50 percent in the first six months of employment. Employee turnover costs as much as $5,000 per front-line worker, or 20 to 30 percent of entry level earnings. Another advantage for Walmart would be improved customer service and better public relations.

The digitized educational modules are designed to be fun, replacing procedures to be memorized with celebrities, cartoons and contests. There is also practical instruction, like reading a stock label, and the eight-step process for collecting carts in the parking lot.

The training is geared toward providing a big picture view of the company. For instance, one video uses old grainy footage of Sam Walton talking about the importance of customer service. Another builds on the motivational mantra, "I know. I can. I will."

The modules lead to hands-on training in the store, with the employees practicing what they have learned from the games and drills under the supervision of managers. This is in preparation for a "gateway" assessment that can bring a raise of $1 an hour or more.

To make the on-the-job component of the program work, Walmart is hiring more managers, giving them increased authority over scheduling, and training these new workers to take more responsibility for their employees—all in attempt to foster teamwork.

Some of the training program's modules help employees think about the wider retail business. Others use infographics to teach about the company's hierarchy and potential career paths. After the six-month assessment is successfully completed, the employees may graduate to a better job, such as higher-paying sales roles in specific departments, or enter more training to become a department manager.

While many of Walmart top executives, including CEO Doug McMillon, started as hourly associates, the chain has become more concerned about the majority of entry level workers who eventually leave. One of the program's goals is to provide employees with something tangible that might provide incentive to stay at Walmart, or a certification they can take with them.

Such a certification, modeled on technical training used in manufacturing and crafts, demonstrates that the individual has learned transferable skills. In some fields, like IT and health care, these can be as valuable as degrees.

"A retail credential could be significant," said John Colborn, director of the Aspen Institute's Skills for America's Future initiative. "So many people enter the labor force through retail."

Walmart could eventually work with other retailers to create a certification in customer service. "This isn't just about workers performing better. It's about helping employees build the skills to move up," said Julie Gehrki, senior director at the Walmart Foundation. The foundation works with Walmart to encourage change in retailing.

For more:
-See this article in The Wall Street Journal

Related stories:
Walmart cuts employee hours to pay for wage hikes
Walmart brings back greeters
Walmart pressures suppliers to reduce prices
Walmart pledges a fresh start
Walmart to open 11 supercenters in Canada