Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen wants the state to do a better job at preparing students for careers at Wal-Mart.
But he’s not talking about stocking shelves or checking out customers.
Instead, Bredesen wants to tailor community college programs to offer courses on retail management.
Bredesen, a Democrat, pitched his proposal on how to address a management shortage at big-box retail stores on a recent trip to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.’s headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. While no formal arrangement has been struck, Bredesen and Wal-Mart officials agreed to work on developing a curriculum.
Bredesen told The Associated Press he would consider an arrangement where community colleges teach Wal-Mart-specific skills, if the company would agree to guarantee jobs for graduates with good grades.
Wal-Mart spokesman Dennis Alpert says Bredesen’s proposal came after hearing company officials talk about a shortage of managers. The program would be a first for the world’s largest retailer.
“Not just in Tennessee, but across the country, there’s a lacking of certain trained professionals” at large retail stores, Alpert says. The traditional model at Wal-Mart has been to hire entry-level workers and gradually have them move up the ranks toward management positions.
Bredesen said working with community colleges to develop retail-specific management skills could help jump-start staff recruitment and help Wal-Mart expand. The governor also said he was impressed by the scope of operations at a Wal-Mart Supercenter.
“The point they made was, ‘When we open a store, the day it opens it’s a $100 million-plus business with 600 employees and all the complexities of running a business with 600 employees,’” he said.
Timothy Vogus, an assistant professor of management at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, says running a Wal-Mart store is “very complex managerial work. You’re dealing with so many issues that are very hard to deal with, especially the human issues: the staffing, the recruiting, the training.”
While those skills are taught in undergraduate and graduate programs, retailers aren’t able to offer the salaries — or the prestige — that would attract those graduates to manage their stores.
“When you go to get an MBA, people have an air about it that they want to go into investment banking or consulting,” Vogus says. “Even in undergraduate programs, people have the idea that, ‘If I’m going to manage a Wal-Mart store, I’m doing something wrong.’”
Giving community college students those skills would give them a chance to leapfrog Wal-Mart’s internal labor market, and it could give them a higher ceiling for advancement, he says.
Bredesen was the first of several governors to take Wal-Mart up on an invitation to visit the company’s headquarters. The invitation was made by chief executive Lee Scott at a National Governors Association meeting earlier this year.
Since then, Alpert says, Wal-Mart managers have either hosted or visited Govs. Jennifer Granholm of Michigan, Chris Gregoire of Washington, Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania and Kathleen Sebelius of Kansas. All are Democrats.
The meetings come amid a Wal-Mart public relations drive to improve the company’s image after years of ignoring critics.
Wal-Mart now touts changes such as its lower-cost health plans for employees. It has reached out to selected critics, including environmentalists, and started an outside support group called Working Families for Wal-Mart — chaired by civil rights leader Andrew Young.
Still, Bredesen acknowledged, there are bound to be some who are skeptical about his plans to work with Wal-Mart on educational programs.
“You can’t do anything without some criticisms,” Bredesen said. “But I certainly think that when you have an employer of that size — who has that many good jobs that they are saying need to be filled — we need to respond to that.”
Wal-Mart employs nearly 40,000 people at its 122 facilities in Tennessee, paying an average of $10.18 per hour.
Bredesen said courses could be tailored to the needs of Wal-Mart, but they could also apply to other large retailers in the state.
“I really think a lot of the future of the community college system is being as responsive as possible to the needs of individual employers,” he said. “Not just turning out people with generic skills, but the very specific skills that employers are looking for.”
— Associated Press
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