Jesse Rice's job is to sell meat in the grocery department of a Kansas City Wal-Mart store. But ask him what he does and you'll hear him sell himself as well as his employer.
He'll tell you how he uses the retailer's "My Productivity" tool to help with cross merchandising – to, say, pull buns from the bread shelves and display them next to the hotdogs and hamburger meat in grilling season, but not at Easter when hams get pride of place.
"I strive for excellence. I want perfection," Rice said. "I know that's impossible, but at the same time, we are definitely striving for it. We want the customers to come in and find everything they need. And if they have questions, we want everyone to be there, to be able to help them."
Wal-Mart officials shepherding a reporter and photographer in the rare access behind the scenes at Wal-Mart insist that Rice wasn't coached to say that.
It could well be that there's no faking the enthusiasm of a young man who's a couple of days into the new Wal-Mart Academy, a training program that by the end of 2017 will have reached a quarter million employees of the world's largest retailer.
For Rice, the meat department isn't just a low-wage or temporary job. He sees a career path where others may see a dead-end. He intends to one day become a store manager and, beyond that, a market manager supervising multiple stores.
All of the dozen front-line hourly supervisors or department managers recently grouped around a training table in the back of the Shawnee, Kan., Wal-Mart store may not share Rice's thoughts or goals, but for a few days they were captive to – and clearly engaged in – a concentrated Wal-Mart effort, new this year, to infuse consistency across its massive retail landscape.
"Retail is changing," said Erica Jones, a Wal-Mart public relations person from the company's Bentonville, Ark., headquarters. "The way customers shop is changing. We need to provide our associates more tools to keep up with the times."
While the company slows down store expansion to invest in remodeling and raising employee pay, it also is establishing dedicated training sites in select stores across the country, 100 so far and 200 by the end of the year.
The Shawnee store has the Wal-Mart Academy for the Kansas City area. Its training site occupies 2,500 square feet at the back of the store, replete with ranks of desktop computers, iPads, Apple-based software and walls decorated with trademark blue and yellow graphics with upbeat messages.
Ian Markley, one of 17 trainers – called facilitators – at the Shawnee academy, wears a headset and carries an electronic device as he maneuvers through a training room. Lesson information is synced onto the trainees' individual screens or projected on a wall-mounted screen. Participants lean over small yellow pads, scribbling copious notes as Markley digs into the minutiae of restocking and order programs.
In another room, facilitator Nichole Umscheid leads a class through a "replenishment cycle" exercise. She reminds them that Wal-Mart's computer systems do 90 percent of inventory ordering automatically, but "you may need to do about 10 percent manually." What if a forecast ice storm depletes the bread aisle or the ice-melt supplies?
It's still too early for the company to know if these exercises truly help in motivating or retaining workers. The Wal-Mart Academies debuted in February 2016 for top store managers only. In October, assistant store managers, Wal-Mart's first level of salaried management, began cycling through.
About 1,400 associates were trained in the Kansas City region in the first four months of the Shawnee Wal-Mart Academy. When all the sites are up and running, the company expects 140,000 associates to cycle through annually. That's still a pittance of Wal-Mart's 2 million associates because not all associates are eligible.
At first glance, store managers say they're seeing a difference among the front-line supervisors who've been through the new training programs – up to six weeks' worth – designed for accelerating job titles.
That doesn't mean that every shopper will see an immediate customer service difference from every check-out clerk or stocker they encounter. But the more intensive academy training does follow the retailer's new "Pathways Foundation" training, which every new hire is expected to complete.
There's an incentive for completion: Starting pay is $9 an hour, but it jumps to $10 when the 90-day foundation program is finished.
Some of the training includes unabashed cheerleading. Yes, there is a Wal-Mart cheer, but The Star didn't have access to watch it. There's also a bright yellow and blue graphic on the floor that leads from the training rooms to the retail floor. Walk the path and read:
"From this day forward, I solemnly promise & declare that every time a customer comes within 10 feet of me ...
"I will SMILE ...
"LOOK them in the eye ...
"and GREET them.
"So Help Me, Sam."
The reference, of course, is to Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton.
The training rooms are lined with taped-up papers torn from flip-chart easels. In one exercise, participants offer up comments – things that never should be said – "It's not my job." "I don't know." "I can't."
Other papers are filled with attitudes and behaviors that should be followed: "Always do the right thing ... while no one is watching." "Give respect to earn respect." "Be willing to apologize to someone."
Cynics and critics, such as Wal-Mart workers who share comments at OUR Walmart, say their experience is different. The name stands for Organization United for Respect at Walmart, and the organizers say it exists "to ensure that every Associate, regardless of title, age, race, or sex, is respected at Walmart."
They see an organization contrary to the training room's flip charts. Various personal submissions on the site contend that the company pays too little, needs to provide paid sick days for part-time workers, discriminates against women and minorities in promotions, and cuts weekly work hours shorter than they need to pay their bills.
Wal-Mart says it provides paid time off that can be used for paid sick days.
Complaints often center on hours being cut below 30 hours a week, the level above which Wal-Mart would be required under the Affordable Care Act to offer health care insurance.
Even on Wal-Mart's own website, associates often follow up on corporate announcements with accounts of their own differing experiences. A lengthy chain earlier this year included complaints about lack of training, lack of hours, lack of opportunity for promotion, and even lack of parking spaces for workers nearer the store doors.
The $10-an-hour base pay, announced last year, "is a start. But it's not the finish," according to OUR Walmart members.
"We need $15 an hour and access to consistent, full-time hours so that we can take care of our families," they state on the website. "Every associate deserves a raise, not just new associates. Every associate deserves an opportunity to have consistent, full-time hours so we can plan our lives and care for our families."
Jones, the Wal-Mart public relations official, countered that OUR Walmart complaints represent a minority of the workforce. She said she hopes many of them will stay with the company and grow in their jobs. "Our part-time associates also are given first shot to pick up full-time hours in their stores or others," she said.
She particularly touted new "schedule transparency" software that gives workers better insight into their work schedules at least two weeks in advance. It also lets them know of hours available to pick up if they want. The company also is providing more fixed work schedules instead of shift times that bounce around.
But, one worker alleged on the OUR Walmart site that to get a promotion she had to agree to be available whenever the store scheduled her.
The average hourly full-time pay at Wal-Mart went to $13.69 an hour this year and can rise to $24 for some hourly associates. The numbers reflect part of a $2.7 billion investment in wages and training that the company announced two years ago.
"Our goal is to build a stronger pipeline of talent in the stores and show a career path," Jones said.
Currently only full-time employees, both hourly and salaried, are in the Wal-Mart Academy classes.
One of the training goals is to clarify their possible career path – from hourly supervisor or department manager to assistant store manager (Wal-Mart's first-level salaried position that now pays $48,500 a year).
For the ambitious – like meat department worker Rice – that increasingly narrower pipeline would go to shift manager to store manager to market manager to regional manager and, maybe, the Bentonville executive suites.