Wal-Mart's first training academy in Pa. opens near Lehigh Valley

Anthony Salamone/The Morning Call - Chris Dunn has worked in various jobs with Wal-Mart, rising through the ranks from stock clerk to assistant manager in his 16 years with the mass merchandiser.

These days, however, he wears a new ID tag on his blue vest: "Academy Facilitator 1."

Wal-Mart on Tuesday celebrated the grand opening of the first Pennsylvania Wal-Mart Training Academy in Hatfield Township, Montgomery County, as well as its first graduating class.

The academy, off Route 309 inside a Wal-Mart Supercenter, is the 41st in the U.S., according to the company. It will serve about 20 stores from the Lehigh and Delaware valleys.

Wal-Mart critics, including Making Change at Wal-Mart, a group sponsored by the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, have faulted the mass retailer for the lack of sufficient employee coaching in dealing with customers.

Dunn, 45, admitted as much during an interview at the academy.

"I feel as a company we had a need to spend more time with associates and to help teach and train them and develop them into our future leaders," Dunn said. "We were at a point in the company that we were growing so fast, our talent wasn't growing fast enough with it.

When Wal-Mart launched the academy — part of a $2.7 billion corporate investment announced in 2015 that also included higher employee wages — Dunn said he jumped at the chance to teach.

"Are we going to make mistakes?" Dunn said. "Sure, but part of this program is to minimize the mistakes we make and give our hourly supervisors the tools to rectify those mistakes."

Said Making Change spokeswoman Meredith Ritchie: "While past behavior requires me to remain hesitant to take Wal-Mart at its word, if the company truly is committed to providing workers with more hands-on training and career advancement, that is a positive development."

Retail analyst Jeff Green said Wal-Mart is starting to see the advantage of providing employees with better customer service skills, in addition to offering lower prices. .

"And if they can combine price with service, it will be a huge win," said Green, who is president of Jeff Green Partners in Phoenix.

The Bentonville, Ark., retailer says it plans to open 200 academies across the country by the end of the year that will train more than 140,000 hourly supervisors and managers a year.

Wal-Mart plans to open two more academies in central and western Pennsylvania. A company representative said she did not immediately know the exact locations.