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Walmart’s Sean Thurman on the Future of Work in the U.S.


CTA Staff

Technology is transforming the way businesses run, and the workforce needed to ensure their success.  Companies like Walmart are investing time and resources into making sure their workforce has the knowledge and training to push their business forward.

We had a chance to speak with Sean Thurman, director of global public policy at Walmart about the future of work for Walmart, and the country.

Tell us a little about your career background and your current role at Walmart.

I served for 10 years in various legislative and regulatory policy roles in Washington, DC – most recently in the U.S. Senate for Chairman Lamar Alexander’s (R-TN) Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

I joined the Public Policy team at Walmart in 2016, where I’ve served as a liaison between the business and our external-facing government relations and public affairs teams, and as an advisor to the business on workforce and employment issues. The role has also offered some amazing opportunities to explore complex issues – like the future of work – that Walmart, other companies, policymakers, academics, and the country as a whole are facing today.

What kind of programs does Walmart have in place to ensure it creates a successful future workforce?

We are actively preparing our associates for the future. We’ve seen the promise of technology and the exciting ways it can empower them to better serve our customers. So we’ve invested more than $4 billion over the past four years in training, education, and higher wages. And we’re investing in associate-facing apps and technology to enhance how our people work and learn. We want every Walmart associate to be better off for having worked here.

Last year we trained nearly 500,000 associates in our 200 in-house training academies on soft skills, retail and management fundamentals and leadership. This training has translated into millions of dollars of portable education credit that our associates can put towards a college degree.

Walmart recently published a research study, titled, ‘America at Work”.  What was the purpose of the study and what are a few of the key findings?

America at Work: A National Mosaic and Roadmap for Tomorrow examines community resiliency by trying to better understand the more than 3,000 counties across the United States in terms of their capacity to address the changes associated with the future of work – principally, automation. Our research revealed an entirely new “National Mosaic” map, consisting of eight distinct community archetypes scattered across the country.  

The report recommends responses and interventions designed to help policymakers, employers, educational institutions, community leaders, and others best adapt to the changing nature of work.
Some of our key findings include:

  • The future of work is not a dichotomy of urban vs. rural, or the coasts vs. middle America. We should not overlook huge swaths of the country and work to understand their complexities. Each archetype has distinctive strengths and challenges that will determine its resiliency and shape its future.

  • We identified six principal responses to automation ─ retraining and upskilling, boosting mobility in the labor market, building and maintaining infrastructure, creating new jobs, modernizing the social safety net, and strengthening education. All eight community archetypes can benefit from all six responses, but the benefits achieved, and the right prioritization of responses depend on the strengths and obstacles to success associated with each archetype. 

Ultimately, we want the report to help communities plan for their unique situations, so they can take action to survive and thrive in a changing economy. We are committed to helping strengthen the communities we serve because it’s the right thing to do. The broader community’s success helps Walmart and our people succeed as well.

Tell us a little about the $1 a day college tuition plan.

To ensure our more than 1 million U.S.-based associates can continue to learn, we now offer everyone access to affordable higher education, removing a key barrier of degree completion.

In partnership with Guild Education, Walmart associates can access affordable, high-quality associates and bachelor’s degrees in Business or Supply Chain Management at nonprofit universities selected for their focus and strong outcomes on serving working adult learners.

Under the program, Walmart will subsidize the cost of higher education (tuition, books, fees) beyond Pell eligibility and an associate contribution equivalent to $1 a day.

To date, 65,000 associates have expressed interest in the program, and 4,200 associates are currently enrolled, with hundreds more on a path to get there through high school completion, college prep, etc.

What is most the important thing for U.S. companies to do to help Americans acquire in-demand skills, so they can participate in our changing workforce?

Work is going to continue to look and feel different – not just in retail, but across the economy – and companies will need to be thoughtful about that transformation and find ways to bring their people along. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

We’ve listened to our associates about what they are looking for in terms of education and skills development, and we’ve taken some big steps to offer those opportunities and benefits to them. Of course, not every company is able to do what we have done – but we can share what we learn along the way.

One of the key takeaways from our report, not just from our own point of view, but from others we engaged in the research, was the need for cross-sector, community-based collaboration – policymakers, education and workforce experts, philanthropic organizations, and companies working together to share ideas and develop tactical plans for how to leverage the human element in a technological age. It starts with a willingness and capability to engage in the conversation, and that’s what we hope to achieve.

Sean will be speaking on a Future of Work panel at CTA’s Innovation Policy Day at SXSW on Tuesday, March 12. Learn more about the event.

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