When Training Helps the Company, But Not Employees

Full disclosure: I’ve never been a fan of Walmart. It’s not best to begin with a negative sentiment, but I wanted to provide the disclaimer that when I saw an article on Walmart’s employee training program in The New York Times, I was already primed not to be impressed.

I appreciate the low prices, but the crowds and chaos often found in the Walmart stores I visited gave me a headache, and I thought it was sad that to keep prices low, the company had to source products of an inferior quality and maybe made overseas under labor conditions many Americans would not be comfortable with. That said, I did once in a while spend money there. When I lived in Gainesville, FL, it was my go-to place to get duplicates of keys made. I would cringe and resort to tunnel vision as I handed my key over a glass counter with guns inside, and guns hanging behind on the wall. For some reason, the key duplication services were in the same place where guns were sold.

So I’m not a good cultural fit for Walmart, probably. But even so, the article, “At Walmart Academy, Training Better Managers. But With a Better Future?” bothered me. The gist of it was that the company’s new training program may create better employees, but does not necessarily help the employees move into more profitable job roles that allow them to better their lives.

My first question for discussion: Should corporate training programs be viewed solely as a way to equip employees to serve a company’s own needs, or should such training programs also provide employees with the opportunity to advance in their career and earn more money, so their lives can be improved, too?  

Walmart has two different training tracks. One, Walmart Academy, is designed for more experienced supervisors and department managers. The other, Pathways, is for entry-level workers. The Academy provides instruction on business skills, such as how to calculate profit-and-loss statements, while Pathways teaches more rudimentary skills, such as “retail” math. It’s to the company’s credit that it’s created these programs at all, but I wonder if it’s inadvertently created a system that will create two classes of employees—one worthy of higher-order training, and the other presumed not promising enough for learning anything other than the skills needed for their entry-level positions.

An entry-level employee can get promoted, and then experience the Academy, but if you’re sending the message that low-level skills are what the company wants you to focus on, with nothing further until that promotion happens, is that promotion likely to happen at all?

The article highlights the success story of a man who started as a part-time janitor, who rose through the ranks to now run the meat department of the Walmart Supercenter where he works. That story is encouraging, but I wonder whether it’s representative of the experience of many of the company’s entry-level employees, or whether it’s a notable exception. What do you think? I might be cynical to think this kind of story isn’t that common.

Alongside skills and the hope of a promotion is the question of pay. Employees who are able to make a big jump over time from entry-level worker to department head undoubtedly also make a big jump in pay, but what about the opportunity to gain skill sets along the way on the rise to department head that allow them to earn more money? The basic skills taught in the Pathways program are great if they teach employees things they didn’t learn in school, but those skills may not benefit their quality of life without the right opportunities to make incremental steps in their career with corresponding incremental wage increases. In other words, you shouldn’t have to make a big jump to a supervisory role, or department head, before getting the chance to improve your pay.

Walmart employees may be starting at such a modest place in pay that it would take a huge jump before the pay is enough to live comfortably (or live at all) on. The article notes that the employee engagement created by the training program has value, but that some researchers say “what many Walmart workers need most is not training, but higher wages. The training programs, they say, may be helpful in enhancing employee loyalty and performance, but increasing pay would benefit the workers most.”

Should the training an organization provides employees translate into better skills and job performance and a better quality of life for those employees?

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