BENTONVILLE, Ark. — Walmart's annual shareholder meeting is, at its core, a celebration of the retailer's associates, many of whom travel from stores around the globe to attend a week's worth of activities. So it's fitting that the 2018 meeting kicked off with a series of announcements about workforce initiatives, in front of a cheering crowd of those very employees at an Arkansas arena.
First, uniform guidelines have changed. Associates will now be able to wear jeans and shirts of any color to work, although the store's signature blue apron remains a staple. In addition, managers can wear sneakers, a perk already enjoyed by associates.
There's also a new scheduling app that will let employees have remote access to their schedule and swap shifts with another associate, all through a mobile device. Walmart is also addressing a much-requested associate need by offering an option for schedules with set days and hours each week, and locked in on a quarterly basis.
More than half of Walmart's stores are already using the My Scheduler app and the remaining will come online by the holiday season, according to Mark Ibbotson, executive vice president of central operations for Walmart U.S.
New employee training programs are being developed using virtual reality. Initially, this is being integrated into the big orange pickup towers being rolled out to 700 stores this year, but the VR programs will be added in other ways throughout the U.S., Ibbotson said.
There's also a newly developed video game designed for in-store training and engagement. Based on the popular Sims game, employee avatars will be placed in simulated experiences in stores. Stock a shelf, see the inventory meter go up. Stop to talk to a customer and watch the store's sales numbers increase. Have a clean up in aisle 12 and the customer satisfaction index starts to rise.
The game will initially be used in the company's training academies and later expanded. It currently has no name, but Walmart is hosting a competition for associates to come up with one after the meetings end this week.
But the crowning glory for Walmart, is the launch of a new educational benefits program that will fund college degrees for associates, paying for all tuition, books and other costs beyond financial aid. Employees pay just $1 toward the total to have "some skin in the game," according to Ibbotson, who announced the program to associates.
Classes taken through Walmart's training Academies will be translated into college credit as part of this program, and will be retroactive for all courses taken since the academies launched in 2016, counting toward up to 19 hours of college credits, similar to Advanced Placement courses offered to high school students that can be applied toward earned college degrees.
One component of this program will be ongoing assessment and evaluation, performed by the Lumina Foundation. Additionally, Walmart's own team will be closely watching three things according to Drew Holler, vice president of associate experience at Walmart.
The company will be measuring college completion rates, not enrollment, and is interested in applicant flow and will keep a close eye on the quality of job applicants. "We want to be the employer of choice and this adds to that for potential associates," said Holler. And finally, Holler's group will be closely watching engagement and productivity among associates, whether it's in promotions attained or job performance.
The goal of the program will be to improve Walmart's bottom line. Management believes better trained, empowered and educated employees are part of accomplishing this and worth the investment. It's a common refrain from Walmart and other retailers these days, one that elicits eye rolls from skeptics and employee advocates.
Walmart management acknowledged there will be costs, but declined to put a price tag on it. "[It's] hard to nail down a cost, but we do know any costs we do incur will have significant ROI," Holler said. To that end, Walmart hosted a panel discussion with a group of education experts for media following the associate's meeting and program announcement. All noted that better educated and better-trained employees helped to stabilize companies, communities and economies.
"We found that with our employer partners 100% are applying [for jobs] because of this benefit," said Rachel Carlson, CEO and co-founder of Guild Education, Walmart's partner in this education initiative. "There is a two times retention rate for those who take classes than those who do not, and a 2.4 times impact on employee promotion rates."
"Walmart’s announcement this morning that it was offering significant assistance for college… is another example of the aggressive investing the company is undertaking in its employees," Moody’s Lead Retail Analyst Charlie O’Shea said in a emailed statement. "In combination with increased pay, training and improved career opportunities, Walmart is recognizing the positive impact across the board of a stable workforce, and increases the pressure on other companies inside and outside of retail as this heats up the competition for quality employees. This new benefit escalates the ongoing ‘arms race’ for employees in retail."
"We think it will increase our associate base and the caliber of people who apply," said Holler. "Honestly, we think we have something special here."