Guess Who's Becoming a Major Grantmaker for Workforce Development? Walmart

Amid all the attention around Walmart's pledge to raise its minimum wage to $9 in April and $10 next year, another big Walmart story got neglected: How the company plans to invest $100 million over five years for an economic opportunity initiative aimed at entry-level workers.

Will America's biggest company and its philanthropic arm become the nation's largest grantmaker for workforce development? It's possible, although even with this announcement, such a day remains distant. 

Walmart's goal in funding the new initiative is to make training and advancement more accessible to low-wage, unskilled, and uneducated workers. This money will be focused on four frontiers: mapping career paths in retail; pre-employment training; training and credentialing to move from entry-level to middle-skill jobs; and zeroing in on specific cities that need more retail workers to move into middle-skill jobs.

A first round of grants has already gone out the door from Walmart and the Walmart Foundation, totaling $16 million. The full list of recipients is here.

Jobs for the Future is one of the seven winners in this year's round of $16 million in grant making. With $3 million in new funding, the group will be working with retail employers on workforce challenges related to the transportation, distribution, and logistics sides of the business by assisting with job training, support, and placement services. The Department of Labor estimates that transportation and warehouse employment will grow by 20 percent over the next decade, with 856,000 new jobs being added. Right now, a lot of these jobs are dead-end positions, but opportunities often exist higher up the ladder for workers with the right skills. 

With an eye toward empowering more women in middle-skill careers, another key Walmart goal, each of these programs will dedicate at least 25 percent of their spots to female participants. Jobs for the Future will also give targeted technical assistance to recruit women for jobs traditionally dominated by men, such as truck driving and warehouse management.

With this effort, it appears that Walmart is building a model to enable people to move up to middle-skill jobs without needing to attend college. Of course, that notion is hot right now in workforce circles, given how many young people are either not ready for college, can't afford it, or drop out. There's a lot of discussion of alternative ways to train and credential workers, and with skills more laser-targeted to the needs of local employers. Some of this training can involve interactive learning games and apps that employees can do on their own time, and better coaching from employers regarding other jobs within the business that may be within reach. 

Once upon a time in America, entry-level workers straight out of high school routinely ascended to the middle class, thanks to employers that invested heavily in their skills. Is a new variation of that opportunity ladder possible today? 

Maybe, if the good jobs are really there, but meanwhile, Walmart's new round of funding acknowledges the central role that community colleges play as today's new vocational schools. A $1 million grant went to Achieving the Dream to "build the capacity of four community colleges to place students in training and secure middle-skills jobs in the retail sector, creating a framework that can be replicated at other colleges."

The other grantees in this new initiative showcase the range of strategies that are now in play to lift low-income workers upward. One piece of this work aims to get disadvantaged Americans into the workforce to begin withbecause obviously you can't move up if you can't even get in. Dress for Success got $2.58 million to work with women from more than 30 states on what is now called "pre-employment training"another term for integrating people into the culture of work at a time when millions of Americans have been sitting on the sidelines for years, or in some cases have never worked at all. 

Boosting its minimum wage was a huge step in the right direction for Walmart, helping to ensure that the first rung of the employment ladder is sustainable for entry-level employees (so they aren't, say, forced to turn to foodstamps at taxpayer expense).

With this workforce investment, Walmart and the Walmart Foundation are looking to influence the factors that determine where people can go next, opening up opportunity and advancement to get to the next rung.