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President and CEO of Walmart U.S. Greg Foran addresses U-M workforce conference

At first glance, a top Walmart executive might not be an expected headliner for an event focused on workforce, mobility, and equity. But when Greg Foran, president and CEO of Walmart U.S. kicked off the Poverty Solutions engagement series “Workforce: Solving for Jobs, Mobility and Equity in an Era of Rapid Change” he joined a conversation with the state and local officials, community leaders, and workforce program participants engaged in creating change. He shared more about the company’s efforts to invest in workforce development, his observations of poverty, and listened to the expertise and experiences of those who have developed or participated in workforce development programs here in Michigan.

We know rates of upward economic mobility have fallen since the mid-20th century, more and more children are growing up to earn less than their parents, and the lack of opportunity is exacerbated by rising inequality, increased wage disparities and limitations within our education system. And technology is changing the very nature of work itself.

In this era of rapid change, businesses, nonprofits, governments, and communities will have to work together to build a system that benefits both workers and employers. It’s crucial we examine the issue from multiple viewpoints, and that’s why Walmart joined Michigan’s workforce program experts, Detroit officials, representatives who have participated in youth and adult programs, and nearly 150 students, academics, and community representatives at U-M.

As one of the largest employers in the U.S. Walmart is poised to change the future of work.

“It’s relatively easy to talk about workforce development in an academic way, or in terms of public policy,” said Foran. “But you learn something entirely different when you have to create and roll out an academy program to train 1.3 million associates to prepare them for the changing workplace.”

A native of New Zealand, Foran shared how his travels to Walmart locations across the country helped him to better understand the American experience, particularly how deeply many Americans were experiencing poverty. “In the four years I’ve lived here, I’ve been to every state – most of them several times. My view of the country has changed,” he said. “Primarily because I now see there are many more low-income people than I realized. The country is more divided based on income and ethnicity than I imagined.”

“In many of our stores the busiest day isn’t Black Friday, it’s the first of the month when SNAP and other types of government-assistance come out,” he said. “In most stores we go big on toys during the holidays. But in others, toys are a luxury; those customers need infant formula and other staples.”

He also noticed how Walmart stores could draw in people based on what they lacked at home. “One of the things I didn’t realize is some people visit our stores because we have heat in the winter and air conditioning in the summer,” Foran said.

Foran also touched on a few programs Walmart hopes will help uplift its workforce. Walmart academy program that has trained over 800,000 associates and converted nearly 175,000 associates from part-time to full-time in the last year. Walmart has also led the charge to raise minimum wage. And the company is also looking at education beyond training focused on improving an associate’s day-to-day operational skills in the stores.

While many Walmart associates are skirting or fall below the poverty line and Foran admitted the company has more improvements to make.  “We’re not perfect, not by a longshot,” he said. “I point to examples of what can happen when we take a hard look at what we can – and should – do for our associates.”