Closing the economic opportunity gap in the U.S. may seem like an impossible task, but one by one, the actions of many can bring real change. As one of the world’s largest companies in both revenue and employees, Walmart is helping drive change through its Walmart.org philanthropic organization.
In this podcast, I talked with Gayatri Agnew, senior director, opportunity for Walmart.org, about how Walmart is opening doors to opportunity for its associates to grow their careers in ways they may never have thought possible.
Listen on SoundCloud: Workday Podcast: Opening Doors of Opportunity at Walmart
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If you’re more of a reader, below you’ll find the transcript of our conversation, edited for clarity. You can find our other Workday Podcasts here.
Carrie Varoquiers: The unemployment rate in the U.S. hovers around 4 percent. And we hear the phrase “nearly full employment” often. Employers are eager to hire, but they’re struggling to find the talent to fill open roles. But what if employers are simply thinking of talent in old ways, using pedigrees as proxy for skills and smarts?
At Workday, we believe that talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. There are plenty of unemployed or underemployed people who are eager for work but are completely overlooked because they don’t have a college degree or the right experience. In a rapidly changing labor market, forward-thinking companies are changing the way they think about talent and are seeing the business benefits of viewing talent differently than they have in the past.
This is Carrie Varoquiers, vice president, global impact and employee life at Workday. Joining me is Gayatri Agnew, senior director, opportunity, for Walmart.org. On today’s Workday podcast, we’re going to talk about closing the opportunity gap to benefit society and the bottom line. Welcome, Gayatri.
Gayatri Agnew: Hi, Carrie. Thank you so much for having me on the podcast today.
Varoquiers: It’s great to have you here. So Gayatri, tell us about your role at Walmart and why this is such a strong focus area for your organization.
Agnew: Absolutely. So I have the pleasure of leading our opportunity or economic mobility strategy for Walmart.org. And you know, Walmart’s one of those companies that everyone has thoughts and opinions about. And so I think it’s worth just pausing for a minute and letting me explain how we operate our corporate philanthropy, because it’s not obvious.
You mentioned that I work for our Walmart.org brand. This is actually a new brand that we introduced into the world at the very beginning of May. The Walmart.org structure is about advancing the shared values that we live out in support of the company, coupled with the way we do our external philanthropy and support change-making organizations in multiple ways around the world.
Walmart focuses on three key pillars of work. Access to economic opportunity is the pillar of work I have the fortune to lead. We also focus on enhancing sustainability—and that’s everything from our environmental sustainability and corporate footprint to sustainability within our supply chain, to how our goods are made and manufactured and where they are made and manufactured. And then our third pillar is strengthening and supporting the communities around every facility, whether it be a distribution center or a physical store or our home office here in Bentonville, Arkansas.
So the [Walmart] Foundation, through our efforts at Walmart.org, focuses on these three big pillars of work. What we’re talking about today is the pillar around economic opportunity. And Carrie, this is the pillar you and I have had the pleasure for some years now of collaborating on.
And I think this is a really interesting place to look at shared value because of the way that Walmart shows up in the world, the jobs we offer, the types of people we hire, the opportunities for advancement we present, the grants and philanthropy we provide . . . all of that is part of how we support access to economic opportunity.
Varoquiers: Great. I know that Walmart has had such a long history of creating positive social impact in the communities through your business. Why is access to economic opportunity in particular one of your three pillars? Why is it important to your business?
Agnew: I think it’s incredibly important for a number of reasons. The first is that creating access to economic opportunity, enhancing sustainability, strengthening community—these are all things Walmart has chosen to work on because we are uniquely well-suited to effect change within each of these areas.
Walmart is the largest private employer in the United States. So when we make changes to how we hire or who we hire, or how we promote . . . those changes don’t just affect our own associates—our employees we call our associates—they’re a part of our business. When we make those changes, they have a ripple effect across the broader economy.
You saw this several years ago when Walmart went to a higher-wage structure, and many other large companies followed suit. As a company, we know that income inequality, in the United States in particular, is a huge social threat to people’s stability, to people’s lives, and also to our business. So I think it’s natural that we would focus on it as a key pillar of work for us.
Varoquiers: Great. And while you are the largest private employer in the U.S., you and I both know that none of us can do this alone. When we think about Walmart’s role in creating access to economic opportunity, can you talk to me a little bit about how you think about partnership and the partnerships you currently have in place that are advancing this pillar of work?
Agnew: I’d actually ground this in my own personal experience of coming into Walmart and building the partnership I’ve built with this company, which I think stems from my own background and personal experience I had in middle school when my mom went from having a really unstable job to a really stable job. And that experience changed my life.
So for me, from a very young age, it was about the value of work and how work influences not just the individual who holds a job but the entire family structure around that individual; how transformative my middle school years were as a result of my mom’s secured employment and changes in her employment structure.
When I came to work at Walmart, I was really curious to know the practices that are making those individual associates’ lives better and stronger as a result of their connectedness to Walmart—to employment with Walmart. So we think about the economic opportunity chain in three key pillars. The first is access to work. The second is stability in work. And the third is mobility within work. But the reality is that each one of those components takes a whole host of partners to make it successful.
If you think about the last job you found, more often than not it probably wasn’t you acting on your own in a silo, as an individual, where you went out and secured a job. There was an entire network effect around you. How you found the job—maybe you found it on a website. Maybe you found it on a job board. Maybe you knew someone at the company.
So I think the first thing I acknowledge as an individual contributor to this work, and Walmart acknowledges as a company, is that none of us do this alone. My mom didn’t do it alone when she got a better job. When we hire associates, we don’t do it alone. We do it in partnership with a whole host of different networks across the U.S.
Some of the partnerships that Walmart’s created more recently that I think have been really transformative to our work—one is the partnership that we launched last year with Guild Education. They make it easier for employees of Fortune 1000 companies to access educational benefits. What that means for a Walmart associate that wants to pursue high school completion or wants to gain access to college completion, is that they can do that through Walmart’s partnership with Guild for a dollar a day. We also provide them with a coach that’s going to walk alongside them through that journey.
That partnership was launched about a year ago this month, and we’ve seen thousands of associates enroll. I think what partnerships like that start to do is transform the role of the employer relative to the role of the individual worker and/or learner—or, as we like to say, the role of the working learner—and really open up new pathways to opportunity that weren’t as present in recent times for workers in a company like ours.
Varoquiers: I think that partnership with Guild is so unique, and Walmart really was at the forefront of ensuring college access and continued education for workers. My hat’s off to Walmart for really leading in that space. It’s so important.
One of the things that I really like about working with you and Walmart.org is the fact that you are so collaborative and recognizing that this is something that does take all players in order to advance the career perspectives or possibilities for those that are unemployed or underemployed. And you’ve really done that in partnership with us through our Opportunity OnrampsⓇ movement.
At Workday, we’re really trying to broaden the conversation about hiring nontraditional talent; those without a BA or that haven’t had a linear path in their career. And I know that, like us, you have eliminated degree requirements for jobs that don’t actually require a degree to try to stave off degree inflation in job postings.
So I would love to hear a little bit more about how you’re working with other companies like Workday in trying to advance this work.
Agnew: I think one of the really wonderful things about building partnerships, especially on tough, complex issues such as tackling systemic inequality in America, is that you acknowledge that as a single actor in this space, you don’t have the solutions.
As a company that does a large volume of hiring, we don’t think that we’ve got it exactly right, but we know that we can be a positive contributor to how we all get it a little more right over time. We’ve had a lot of conversations about the role of college degree requirements in job reqs and hiring. It’s an interesting part of the Walmart history and the Walmart narrative—for example, in our store management roles, we never required degrees.
A store manager, on average, makes $175,000 a year and is managing a multi-million-dollar business. And many of our store managers don’t have college degrees because those degrees don’t necessarily translate to the key skill sets that we’re looking for in our managers.
And many have grown up with the company: 75 percent of Walmart store leaders started as hourly associates. They started as cashiers or pushing carts or stocking shelves. It’s incredible. It’s one of the things when people ask me, “Why have you stayed at Walmart so long, and why do you believe in the work that your company does?” And I turn around and I say, “75 percent,” because we’ve managed to progress 75 percent of our total management base coming from our hourly store. It’s a testament to working your way up. And you can only do that when your employer is supporting your growth and development through both formal and informal training and education.
And I think the economy and companies are at a pace of change where we can’t afford to miss out on talent. I think it’s not even just a question of how do we get the talent we need to fill the roles we have. I think that alternative talent pathways and bringing talent into companies in new and different ways actually positions companies for the future. And I think companies like Walmart and others that are positioning to create pipelines for talent, no matter where that talent comes from, are going to win in the future because of the diversity that talent brings to their company.
Varoquiers: I couldn’t agree more. At Workday, we have a number of programs focused on providing those opportunities. We focus on three populations currently—opportunity youth ages 18 to 24 that are not college-bound, military veterans that are facing barriers to transitioning into the private sector, and most recently we have a Returnship program for caregivers that have left the workplace for long periods of time and are facing barriers to restarting their career due to large gaps on their resumes.
And we really do believe that this is a strategic advantage to nurture this talent and have them join our team. I would love to hear how Walmart.org decided to focus on upskilling the workers of today rather than focusing on increasing access to higher education, for example. And I know that you do that through your partnership with Guild.
Agnew: Or K–12 education. So as someone who leads the portfolio focus on economic mobility, I think the number one question I’m asked is why Walmart doesn’t fund K–12 schools because it’s so obvious to connect how high-quality education for kids translates into a lifetime of economic security as a result of that high-quality education received in childhood.
I think the challenge is that not all American schools, public or otherwise, are equal. And you have many working adults whose skill sets don’t take them past high school, whose skill sets wouldn’t allow them to qualify for and enroll in college or higher education. And we partnered with the National Skills Coalition, who’s an incredible grantee of ours, and focused on economic mobility for retail workers. We had them look into the basic skill level for folks across the entire sector—not just folks at Walmart, but folks working across the broad retail sector and across the service sector. What they found shouldn’t be too astonishing—really high percentages, upwards of two-thirds of folks, lacked what we would call basic skills around three areas: literacy, numeracy, and data-driven decision-making.
And if you think about the future state of the American economy, those are basic skills that every employee will need in order to thrive and survive. And so while we partner with folks who look at improvements to the K–12 system and are proud to do that, we fund around a strategy that is hyper-focused to the upskilling of incumbent retail workers.
Varoquiers: And I think that the demonstration of the investment you’ve made is the stat that you gave us earlier with 75 percent of your store managers coming from frontline workers and your hourly workforce. So the investment seems to be paying off.
Agnew: We’ve created a structure in our economy where we tend to view workers in one of two ways. We view them as employed workers, which means they’re connected to work, or we view them as unemployed workers, which means they’re not working. And we all know that the reality of the modern-day American economy is it’s much more complicated than that, and you have a lot of workers who are underemployed, meaning their skills exceed the role they have. But you also have a lot of workers who are underskilled relative to their level of years of experience or level of years of schooling.
And so I think one of the things we want to make sure that we’re doing, both through our philanthropic efforts to enhance mobility within the retail sector and through our business practices at Walmart, is acknowledge that work can be a place where learning continues to happen.
Varoquiers: You and I have talked a lot about lifelong learning and creating those moments that make learning available, especially to frontline workers. We’ve talked a lot about the competing priorities for, let’s say, a single parent that might need to have a couple of jobs and is raising three children at home, and when should they find the time for degree completion as an example. It’s really challenging. Can you tell me a little bit about the ways in which Walmart is making these lifelong learning opportunities possible for your workforce?
Agnew: I mentioned earlier, we think about upskilling through the lens of access to work, stability in work, and mobility in work. Access into work has a lot to do with the barriers you do or don’t put in place to assess or evaluate a candidate coming in. Do you require a college degree? That would limit access. Stability really gets at some of the core questions you’re asking which are, what is the wage, what is the benefits package, what is the time structure? So for Walmart, with the majority of our workforce being hourly wage associates, we think about how can we modernize our schedules such that associates can have more stability, so they can structure their lives and their learning around it.
And then mobility has to do with once someone is in a stable enough place where they can count on a basic wage, they can count on core hours, they’re able to focus on learning and expanding their opportunities, and potentially expanding their wage and their role.
So I think the number one thing that we’ve done on the Walmart side is to fit the learning to people’s lives, not try to force people’s lives to fit the learning. Today, so much of that learning experience has moved either online or has moved to a hybrid learning environment. The degree completion options that Walmart provides to our associates through Guild are online.
And then, to really acknowledge the drivers of success for completion in these kinds of adult learning programs. One of the drivers is peer support. How can we ensure that we’re connecting learners across the network so that they see one another and are able to share stories with one another? Another massive driver is having an individual who is a champion for you.
With the Guild program, we utilize the coaching model. Every associate enrolled in a learning experience has a coach, and that coach is checking in with them on a weekly basis. And one of the first questions that coach will ask is, “Why are you doing this?” A lot of folks, not surprisingly, will say their families. Some will say their kids. Some will say for better opportunities. But whatever that driver is, that motivator is the most important thing because when things get challenging, the coach brings back that motivator and reminds them what they shared about why they want to do this.
Another key thing that Walmart has done is we’ve rolled out a network of Walmart Academies across the United States. These are co-located learning environments with 200 of our stores across the country. To date, we’ve trained 500,000 learners in these Academies. And for some of the courses in the Academy, learners are able to receive college credit for the training that they do, which is all on the clock.
So if you think about that for a second— your employer is sending you to training. Your employer’s paying you to be in that training. And an externally recognized college is giving you college-level credit for the training that you completed while at work. But what all of that does is send a clear message to the learner that we as an employer value your capacity to learn.
Varoquiers: I think the Walmart Academy is super innovative. And the fact that you guys and the community college system recognize that the skills that people are gaining through the Walmart Academy are transferable skills in the workplace and do deserve college credits is just remarkable.
So Gayatri, this is a podcast about building on-ramps at your company. We both know that this is something that people in roles such as yours and mine can get behind 100 percent. But it’s really a team sport, and it’s an education process on the recruitment side as well. What are some great first steps that you would recommend other companies take in working with the talent acquisition team at their respective companies?
Agnew: I’ll give my disclaimer—I’m not on our talent acquisition side. I’m not in our HR team. I sit in a really unique role inside our company where my job is to be a good partner to folks that are in those roles and help them solve the problems that they’re facing on a day-to-day basis.
I think a good example of that is that we do a volume of hiring within our store roles that’s really hard to fill. We have a hard time filling roles and are always looking for creative sources of talent. So several years ago, we joined in the effort around the 100,000 Opportunities Initiative, which is a coalition of businesses focused on creating pathways to first jobs for opportunity youth—young people between the ages of 18 to 24 who are both out of school and out of work.
I think another great example is the Path Forward program— the partnership to create returnships for folks that have been out of the workforce for caregiving. You have really high-quality folks whose resumes just look a little different than others because they’ve been disconnected from the workforce for caregiving. So structuring a program where we’re able to bring more of those workers back into our company, by basically giving them the chance to improve their skills with us as an employer prior to full-time employment, is just a unique way to bring them into the fold.
And the last thing I would say is that we are all people, right? I’m very close to my colleagues in the U.S. business on both the HR and talent acquisition side. I build personal relationships with them, so we can have conversations about what their needs look like and how some of the choices they make in filling those needs can provide benefit and value to communities. And they want as much as I do to make that possible.
So I think it’s being mindful of the fact that folks want to join you on this journey. They just need to be able to do that within the realistic constraints and challenges of their day-to-day business operations.
Varoquiers: I agree. I really think that this is both a heart and mind strategy. I think people really want to do the right thing and improve their communities and provide access to opportunity. And on the mind side, I think that the proof is in the pudding. You know, we’ve had incredibly positive outcomes from people that have entered our workforce through these nontraditional channels. What specific steps would you recommend that an individual at a company that is not leading a function like Walmart.org or the talent acquisition team take within their own organization to start the process of change?
Agnew: I think it’s really easy to feel like we don’t have any individual agency over tough social issues of our time. But I think if you surveyed most folks, they have had an influence at one point or another over a hiring decision.
And I think that access to opportunity really does start with how we do our hiring, and in particular how we do our promotions. Any time a job change occurs, who do we look at? Who’s in the candidate pool? Who’s on the selection panel? I do have the chance through my day job and the core function of my work to influence this. But I also try to do it in other ways.
I try to mentor folks who are in college as well as some who are not enrolled in college, and help them see the unique gifts and skills that they have and can share through their work with the world. And I think that’s something we can all do—help a friend or a colleague or a family member feel more confident going into an interview, help them get an interview.
Access to employment is game-changing in people’s lives. And anyone who is employed has the chance to influence someone else’s access to employment by making a referral or a recommendation or even offering to do a mock interview with somebody before they go in for that real interview where they may have a lot of anxiety.
Varoquiers: I agree. I think every individual has the opportunity to create on-ramps for people that might be facing barriers to employment. Workday just concluded our Global Workforce Week, which is our all-employee volunteer week focused on conducting mock interviews, resume reviews, LinkedIn profile reviews, and really building access to social capital for job seekers, so they know people within the walls of Workday who can serve as mentors or career coaches, or make recommendations about open jobs they see available that might be a good fit. So I do think that even if the listeners are not in the position of influencing the social impact strategy at their company, there are so many other ways where they can influence that access to opportunity for job seekers.
Are there any closing thoughts, Gayatri, that you’d like to share with the audience before we close it out?
Agnew: I would just close it out with one of my favorite questions to ask a room. So for folks listening, just take a second to think about the first job you had, and the skills you learned in that job that you still use today. For me, that was serving pizza, at a pizza place, in this small town where I grew up.
So while I deeply value the fact that I was able to complete high school and go on to college, I learned transformative skills in my work environment. And I think as a society, as a community, we’ve really lost sight of how valuable those work-based skills are to setting people up for lifelong economic success. And the more that all of us can help those individuals connect those skills to future opportunities, the more pathways we can build for more people.
Varoquiers: Gayatri, thanks so much for joining us today and sharing your perspectives on how companies can provide opportunity on-ramps to others while also gaining and growing outstanding talent that benefits the bottom line. This is Carrie Varoquiers from Workday. Thanks for listening.