Preparing for the Future of Work

Today, I’m part of a panel on the “Future of Work in an Era of Automation and Artificial Intelligence” at the Business Roundtable’s CEO Innovation Summit. This is a topic we’re often asked about at Walmart: what will jobs look like in the future, and how should we be preparing people for those roles?

When I consider this issue, I think back to my first job as an hourly associate in a distribution center, unloading Walmart trucks in the heat of an Arkansas summer. Our unloading processes in stores have been largely unchanged for three decades. This year, however, they are changing. We’ve begun modernizing our backrooms with a new technology called “FAST Unloader.” Associates take merchandise from the truck and place it directly onto a conveyor. The technology then scans and sorts the items. It takes 1/3 the time, and we’re seeing increases in sales and reductions in turnover in what had been a very difficult job to fill.

Improvements like this are happening across Walmart – our stores, our supply chain, and our eCommerce operations. We’re looking at our jobs through the lens of technology and asking ourselves which human tasks add value – and which should be automated to improve the associate experience, customer experience, and sales.

We’re exploring shelf scanners to monitor our inventory levels, an autonomous floor scrubber (think industrial-grade Roomba), and robotic technology that speeds the process of picking items for Grocery Pickup. At the same time, we’re investing in associate-facing apps and technology to enhance how our associates work and learn. For example, we’re using virtual reality headsets to train associates on the FAST Unloader before it even arrives in their store.

The overall trend we’re seeing is that automating certain tasks gives associates more time to do work they find fulfilling and to interact with our customers. We consider those interactions a competitive advantage now and in the future. We’re also seeing reduced turnover in our stores.

Another trend in the broader retail industry is that stores are likely to have fewer positions in the future. Although we will continue to have large numbers of jobs at all levels, we think our stores will follow that trend. The industry’s turnover rate means we can largely manage the overall number of store associates through attrition. Additionally, the progress we’re seeing from technology indicates that, over time, our roles can be higher-skilled and higher-paid.

This is the future we’ve been preparing for as it relates to training and paying our people. We’ve invested more than $4 billion over the past four years in higher wages, training and education. We’ve built 200 in-house training academies that teach retail and management fundamentals and focus on soft skills and leadership skills. We’ll have trained nearly 500,000 associates by the end of the year. We’re also offering a college benefit, where an associate can earn a college degree for the equivalent of $1 a day. We want every associate to be better off for having worked at Walmart.

We’ve increased our starting wages by more than 50 percent in the last three years, and we’ve invested in adoption, parental leave and education benefits at the same time. Let’s not get stuck, however, thinking about starting wages only. There can be unintended consequences of that focus. For example, raising the start rate at some companies ends up capping compensation for those who stay for years. That’s why Walmart has some of the widest pay bands in the industry. Hourly associates who have been with us, worked hard and moved up in our stores can make more than $24 an hour.

Additionally, smart employers reward their teams well beyond base wages. We currently have an average total compensation and benefits for hourly employees of more than $17.50 an hour when accounting for regular and overtime pay, a 401k match, health care, associate discount, paid time off, and a quarterly bonus more than 1 million of our associates earned last year based on store performance. That figure amounts to $19.99 for full-time hourly employees.

The workplace is going to look different in a few years – not just in retail, but across the economy, and we’re trying to be thoughtful about that transformation and bring our people along. We have been very deliberate about our job offerings, and we will continue listening to our people and investing in the training, benefits and wages they tell us are important. We’re creating a company that is people-led and tech-empowered. Our people made the difference yesterday, just as they do today, and just as they will tomorrow.