Susan Chambers, Walmart’s Executive Vice President of the Global People Division, traveled to Washington D.C. this week and participated in a meeting at the White House with the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board. Walmart Community caught up with Susan afterward to get her thoughts on the event.
Q. We know you travel to Washington frequently to talk about Walmart, employee benefits and other human resource issues. Was this your first visit to the White House and what were your impressions?
Susan Chambers: This was my first visit to Eisenhower Executive Office Building which is on the White House grounds. You cannot help but be struck by the history of the building. So much has happened there and you can imagine past presidents walking the halls and making the critical decisions that have shaped our country. The President’s staff was very gracious and interested in how Walmart can help get our economy moving again.
I have been going to Washington for meetings like this for some time and I would say this was one of the most productive meetings in which I participated. You are really starting to see how people’s opinions of our company have changed for the better. Not just on issues like jobs, but on education and health care benefits. It was very gratifying.
Q. What is the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board (PERAB) and what does the Education and Training Subcommittee do?
SC: President Obama created PERAB to provide advice on the programs designed to jump-start economic growth and facilitate economic stability. He modeled it after the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board created by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1956. It’s meant to pierce what President Obama called the “insularity” of Washington decision-making processes. In announcing the new board, the President commented that “The walls of the echo chamber can sometimes keep out fresh voices and new ways of thinking — and those who serve in Washington don’t always have a ground-level sense of which programs and policies are working.”
The Education and Training Subcommittee is working to find solutions to our nation’s workforce development problem. No one group can solve our skilled workforce challenge by acting alone. The nation’s workforce development enterprise is diverse, supported and funded by a wide range of sources, including individuals, companies, unions, philanthropy, cities, states, and the federal government. By attending this meeting, I was able to emphasize Walmart’s commitment to workforce development and job training programs. Training and development is not a one-time occurrence at Walmart – it is an ongoing part of an associate’s life.
Q. Why was Walmart invited to participate in this discussion?
SC: The fact is that retail jobs are critical to the future of the economy and that these jobs provide a valuable career path for millions of Americans that might otherwise not have an opportunity to join the workforce.
About 75 percent of our store management associates started with our company in hourly positions. Just last year, more than 150,000 hourly store associates were promoted to new positions within the company.
Q. We always hear about the Secret Service and security of the White House? What was it like getting inside the White House complex?
SC: We had given them our names in advance so they had the opportunity to do background checks on each of us prior to the meeting. Once we arrived, the process though was very smooth and efficient – though it was a lot more rigorous than going through airport security.
Q. Walmart’s business is good right now, why would our company be interested in this type of discussion?
SC: Retail is a barometer business. We see the impact that unemployment has on our customers every day. Families that struggle to make ends meet will not pick up that extra something at our stores that they would when times are good.
As far as education and training is concerned, Walmart needs an education system that produces a workforce with the many different skill sets needed to fill the diverse jobs required by the retail sector. Even though we offer multiple types of jobs and career opportunities, we still see thousands of applicants that don’t have the appropriate skills needed for our positions. Part of what I enjoyed about this meeting was sharing ideas with many of the country’s most respected leaders in business and government about how we all can help grow careers throughout the workforce.
Q. What are the key points you shared about Walmart’s involvement in job training and workforce development?
SC: As I stated earlier, Walmart is committed to creating jobs and preparing associates for the needs of the 21st century. Training and development is not a one-time occurrence at Walmart. It is an ongoing part of an associate’s life. We aim to provide associates at all levels with the tools and resources to help them advance their careers. Associates are provided foundational role-based development tools that enable execution of key store processes, and basic customer service skills. Each newly hired associate in Walmart has a specific training plan, which provides foundational knowledge around execution points. This approach continues with training through their transition into supervisory positions, by utilizing a blend of hands-on, classroom, and e-learning to help them drive toward the necessary business results.
Q. Why do you think education and training is important to economic recovery?
SC: Education and training can help re-equip our workforce to help face the new challenges ahead. Walmart believes that the US government should support the development of a flexible and innovative education system to upgrade workers’ education levels. This should include programs that give academic credit for on-the-job learning. We also think the government should examine some simple tax incentives to encourage employers to partner with local colleges and universities to create low cost programs that produce a high quality workforce.
Q. Will Walmart continue to get involved in this type of discussion?
SC: Walmart is committed to the development of our associates and a better workforce overall in the US. Whether it is through our leadership training programs, or by partnering with local community colleges to offer GED completion and other education degrees, we’re creating an environment that fosters ongoing learning and professional development for our associates.
Walmart will work with the government where possible, such as partnering on information about workplace training and other education opportunities. In 2008, the Walmart Foundation contributed around $78 million to support the type of education and training programs discussed at the White House. We will continue to support various education and training programs and I not only see Walmart being involved in this type discussion but being a leader on the issue.