Why Walmart is cross-training associates during the pandemic
Discussions about skill gaps have continued throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The event has accelerated long-anticipated trends in automation, sources previously told HR Dive, piling on top of existing economic displacement and potentially forcing employers to retool talent development programs significantly.
But formal training programs alone may not be sufficient to prepare workers for these shifts. Research and advisory firm Gartner recently determined that employees apply only 54% of the skills they learn, while roughly one-third of skills workers needed three years ago are no longer relevant.
Companies may be able to address talent development concerns by adopting approaches that differ from the traditional classroom and online-learning approaches. One alternative approach was announced in September by retailer Walmart, whose Chief Operating Officer, Dacona Smith, wrote about the company's focus on cross-training store associates. In part, the initiative seeks to provide associates the opportunity to take on leadership tasks, develop their co-workers and receive a more direct connection to leadership, Smith wrote.
In an email Q&A with HR Dive, Walmart's Senior Vice President of Associate Experience Drew Holler talked about the evolution of the company's cross-training strategy as it developed from a similar program held at the company Sam's Club and Neighborhood Market locations, and why cross-training is part of the company's future talent strategy.
HR DIVE: Why is Walmart pursuing cross-training as a talent development strategy?
DREW HOLLER: Cross-training benefits our associates, our customers and our business overall. By cross-training associates and giving them end-to-end ownership of the work in their area, associates will gain more skills to be able to support associates who want to take time off, or just need extra help during a busy shift. For example, an associate who prepares fresh food will be trained to maintain pricing and standards in their area. Associates are gaining broader skill sets that allow them to help customers and give themselves more room for career and pay growth.
How was this strategy developed at the company's Sam's Club and Neighborhood Market locations and what differences/insights will the Walmart version incorporate?
The premise is similar to that of Sam's Club and Neighborhood Market locations. We actually piloted the idea in select supercenters and Neighborhood Market locations before rolling it out to our entire store population. In our test sites, we saw associates with a sense of ownership help their teams accomplish goals. They delighted customers because they were empowered to solve problems for them in the moment. Associates were learning in real time, while also improving customers' lives. By implementing similar roles and skills training across our big-box supercenters, we'll have more than 1 million empowered associates with flexibility to serve customers anytime and anywhere.
How does Walmart plan to cross-train employees, and what is the timeline for training given the upcoming holiday season?
Using both technology and peer-to-peer training, our associates will receive hands-on training in their respective area or team. Our associates are receiving training in real time, every day from their team leads. That's one of the reasons we're so excited about this new role, in particular. Associates get direct feedback and support as they learn new skills right on the salesfloor. We'll continue to cross-train and upskill them to best take care of customers — leading up to, during and after the holidays — and grow their careers in the long-term.
How does the training fit into Walmart's vision for the future of its talent development operations? Is the company planning to increase the availability of training to front-line store associates in the coming years as it adopts technologies such as robotics at its stores?
Providing associates with ample lifelong learning opportunities is a critical part of our strategy. We believe our people are our competitive advantage and will continue to be in an increasingly digital retail environment. We also believe you can start out in an hourly position and become CEO (because it happened). As a result, we'll cross-train more and more associates, continue providing classroom-style and virtual reality training through our 200+ training academies, and make debt-free education programs even more accessible through Live Better U. Technological advancements will help us stay competitive within the retail landscape, but our people will always be what makes Walmart special.
Article top image credit: Courtesy of Walmart