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Just like that, Walmart’s much-vaunted workforce development partnership with the District—-which both parties have offered to critics as evidence of the company’s goodwill—-gets numbers and names. The Community College of the District of Columbia will get $1.7 million to create a “Retail Academy” that will train 1,000 people over three years in basic customer service skills. The Community Foundation of the National Capital Region will get $1.3 million to hand out in competitive grants to local community-based organizations for work readiness training.
And Walmart, of course, gets politicians off its back about any actual requirements of the gigantic company. Michelle Gilliard, head of the Walmart Foundation, said that while those who succeed at the Retail Academy should be well-equipped to take a Walmart job, there will be no preference for the D.C. residents who go through the program. Meanwhile, there’s apparently been little progress on the Community Benefits Agreement the city has drawn up and proposed to Walmart. “We have not come to any conclusion on that,” said Mayor Vince Gray at a press conference this morning, adding that he’d like to get something signed “as soon as possible.”
The eagerness to accept help with job training looks like part of an overall shift by the Gray administration away from forcing companies to hire locally to either rewarding them for doing so or asking for their help in making Washingtonians into competitive applicants—-something that groups like the D.C. Chamber of Commerce and Building Industry Association have long demanded. Jonathan Guevarra, CEO of the community college, said underwriting by corporations is the new way forward. “To us, this means moving away from some of the stale, unresponsive traditions that some of us have practiced for far too long,” he said.
In fact, the District is counting on other corporations besides Walmart stepping up to keep this thing going. Nobody’s quite sure what happens when the money runs out after three years; Gilliard says an additional commitment would depend on how things work out. Other obvious donors, like Target, Costco, and Shoppers, would look bad if they didn’t chip in to match Walmart’s generosity, given that the curriculum is supposed to address all kinds of retail positions. But then, they might not particularly care—-what recourse would the District have if they just decided to pass? There are plenty of job-ready workers willing to come from Virginia and Maryland, after all. If the applicant pool gets deeper in D.C. because of a Walmart-funded education initiative, so much the better.
How is this playing with the people who do workforce training for a living? Well, all of them are now potential Walmart beneficiaries, being eligible for grants ranging between $150,000 and $200,000 (due September 8th! better hurry). Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the umbrella D.C. Jobs Council, acknowledged that the funding is needed, and retail training does help—-but said the $3 million was probably too little to make a dent in the problem. And of course, nobody in her network was consulted about the new Retail Academy. She wasn’t even told about the press conference.
Activists, naturally, are pissed off, and issued an open letter to Gray this morning decrying the lack of transparency in putting the whole thing together. The frustration is understandable, but probably futile—-Walmart, the one with the money, is calling the shots.