Beyond the Dead End Job: What's Walmart Up To With Its Workforce Funding?

When you think of dead-end jobs, America's largest private employer, Walmart, is likely to come mind. For decades, the company has been infamous for taking the low road on employment, offering near-poverty wages and scant benefits, with the effect of pulling other employers downward, too, in order to compete with the giant retailer. 

Yet after years of hounding by labor activists, as well as lawsuits and loads of negative publicity, Walmart has lately changed course, most notably by hiking pay for its workers. 

We've been watching the emergence of a new Walmart, if you can really call it that, as the company's philanthropy has become more interesting and it explicitly addresses some of the past critiques. For example, Walmart's launch of a big women's empowerment effort in 2011 might have had something to do with a major lawsuit for discriminating against women.

Related: Teach a Woman to Fish: The Walmart Foundation and Women's Empowerment

The company's philanthropy is also engaging the familiar charge that retail jobs are dead-end positions that don't raise workers into the middle class. Walmart has said for years that this isn't true, that retail workers can indeed move upward. Lately, it's been giving more grants to make that to happen and, perhaps, improve the image of the retail sector as a wholeone of the top targets of the new labor activists who are calling for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Last year, Walmart provided $16 million in grants to seven nonprofits for training, education and career pathways for retail workers.

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

That's the context for the recent news that the foundation gave $10.9 million to a Chicago workforce agency. This grant supports the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership and funds education and employment services for retail workers.

Formed in 2012, the organization has provided free services to job seekers and businesses. It’s grown into one of the largest of its kind in the entire country, with a budget of around $60 million, administering funding to at least 53 institutions.

According to the Chicago Tribune, about one-third of Walmart’s new $10.9 million commitment funds local programs like a new training center for retail workers. The location has yet to be determined. Walmart’s target demographic is new workers looking for their first jobs as well as current employees who want to move up in the retail field. Although most retail workers haven’t heard of it, there’s actually a National Retail Federation certification program offered to employees, and the new center’s courses can certify employees to get a leg up on the competition.

"Despite the fact that there's this stigma around low-wage jobs, the reality is that one in four American jobs are in the retail industry," said Karin Norington-Reaves, CEO of the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership. "Our job is to ensure people are going into the retail sector space with a rich understanding of the opportunities that await them, and that there are quicker opportunities to advance within retail than any other sector."

Norington-Reaves also said that her agency works with companies to train and hire Chicago employees, and that they have helped Walmart hire about 350 people. So this really seems to be a mutually beneficial relationship between the workforce group and Walmart, and a win-win situation for the Walmart Foundation. However, the city of Chicago has to share this funding with 10 other locations, as grants will also be distributed to workforce development boards across the country.

"Engaged, thriving associates provide much better service to customers," said Kathleen McLaughlin, the Walmart Foundation's president and Walmart’s chief sustainability officer. "We are trying to improve the way the sector as a whole works so the talent pool in retail is enriched. It's good for us in the long term as well."

The Walmart Foundation says more about its workforce funding on its Opportunity page. State Giving Program grants, for example, range from $25,000 to $200,000, and priority is given to programs that serve women and veterans regarding job training and placement.