Wal-Mart Academy fetes first local grads

Training program aims to boost retail giant

By Troy Brynelson, Columbian staff writer

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Sir Edward Elgar’s graduation classic “Pomp and Circumstance” played in the Wal-Mart garden section Tuesday morning.

There was no back-to-school promotion to sell plants or garden tools. Instead, the Marrion neighborhood Wal-Mart was decked in the trappings of a college commencement.

Sixty-nine workers had just completed Wal-Mart Academy, a relatively new employee training program for the retailer. Company officials said it is the latest attempt to standardize training and, in the process, perhaps gain a competitive edge over online retailers.

“A better-trained workforce is a more engaged workforce, and a better shopping experience,” said Troy Cuff, a regional manager.

That morning, workers clad in blue and yellow caps and gowns marched in a horseshoe-shaped path from the front of the store, around aisles of electronics, toys, makeup and past early-bird shoppers.

After a prayer, store managers, regional leaders and Mayor Tim Leavitt spoke to the workers — known within the company as “associates” — about Wal-Mart’s investment in them, “not only in you as employees who help the company grow, but as an individual, helping you with interpersonal skills and leadership skills that you can apply to your daily lives.”

Matt Jurgens, a 26-year-old department manager, called it an “excellent” ceremony.

“The high energy, the positivity, it gives us a chance to show what we’re about,” the Washougal resident said.

Training will vary by job, but it is mandatory for anyone who supervises others, whether they are part-time or full-time. Cuff said training addresses prior problems when newly promoted supervisors were under-trained.

“This was sorely needed,” he said. He added it wasn’t uncommon for stores to get too busy for hands-on training. “You promote someone to an hourly supervisor and sometimes it’s very difficult.”

For local stores, it may help keep its workers. Wal-Mart has some 1,400 employees in Clark County, officials said; but with the unemployment rate the lowest it has been since 2000, workers have more job opportunities than in recent years. The academy puts workers on a track.

“Associates who are more developed in their roles are more engaged,” said Michelle Taft, a regional human resources manager.

Jennifer Plant, another regional manager, said the academy also fortifies a raise in wages. Two years ago, Wal-Mart raised its starting wage to $9 an hour — about $1.75 above the federal minimum wage. Later that year it raised the minimum wage again, to $10 an hour.

“A while back we went and invested in wages, and now we can get that (return on investment),” she said.

Washington’s minimum wage is $11 per hour.

Companywide training has been a focus since March 2016, when Wal-Mart first debuted its academies. It has built more than 170 so far. The academies are roughly 3,000-square-foot portables with multiple classrooms.

The Marrion neighborhood Wal-Mart, at 221 N.E. 104th Ave., is the first in the Vancouver-Portland metropolitan area to get an academy. It is No. 174 in the nation. Its academy is propped up behind the tire and auto parts center.

There, workers are trained in skills such as merchandising, leadership and communication.

“Basically: time management,” Jurgens said. “How to become a good supervisor.” He said he now hoped to start working toward becoming an assistant manager.

Wal-Mart officials said they hoped to have 200 of the academies up and running by the end of the year.