Wal-Mart, UDC may team up

By Jonathan O'Connell
Monday, January 17, 2011

Wal-Mart officials are considering a job training partnership with the University of the District of Columbia's new community college to prepare city residents for jobs and combat concerns over its employment practices as the chain plans to open in the District.

The retail giant, which has stores in Landover Hills and Fairfax County but none in the District, announced four D.C. sites in November where it would like to open.

Although the initial sites are mostly under private control, Wal-Mart began meeting with members of the D.C. Council in recent months to discuss ways the company could contribute to training for city residents. Such a partnership could advance another of the company's goals - stemming criticism from union groups and activists who say it does not fairly compensate employees and who are organizing to oppose the chain's plans.

Wal-Mart has not signed leases for any of the locations yet. But store officials, members of the council and Jonathan Gueverra, chief executive of the Community College of the District of Columbia, have discussed creating training programs operated by the community college and funded in part by Wal-Mart or its charitable foundation.

"I think the District government has to look at how we work with Wal-Mart to be sure that the pathway to jobs is meaningful," said council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), whose ward includes a store planned near Mount Vernon Square.

Gueverra said Wal-Mart might provide staff or curriculum to the school to prepare residents to fill the estimated 1,200 jobs Wal-Mart expects to create. He said the community college, which was created in 2009 and is under the control of the University of the District of Columbia, could also serve as a hub for other programs interested in providing training for Wal-Mart jobs as well. He said many District residents would need to learn not only skills for specific Wal-Mart jobs but also basic reading and writing.

"My idea is to use this to create a solid consortium of training-providing entities," Gueverra said.

Wal-Mart's charitable foundation has provided grants and donations to D.C. nonprofit organizations in recent years, including more than $2 million in fiscal 2010. Last year, the company hosted Gueverra and other local workforce leaders at a stakeholder meeting in Bentonville, Ark., where headquarters are located.

"They really do want to be a good neighbor and partner," Gueverra said.

Other workforce advocates, however, alongside the United Food and Commercial Workers union, say they want Wal-Mart to agree to a more stringent community benefits package stipulating that it will offer full-time jobs paying above minimum wage with benefits, hire D.C. residents for 51 percent of jobs, consider formerly incarcerated job applicants and provide opportunities to women and minorities. Their plans include an event at the John A. Wilson Building Jan. 27 to develop support.

Marina Streznewski, coordinator of the D.C. Jobs Council, one of the protesting groups, said Wal-Mart needed to be held to a higher standard in Washington than other places because it compensated workers at a level insufficient to keep them off of public assistance. Without safeguards, she said existing small businesses could also be shuttered.

"The requirements to be a good corporate citizen in D.C. are different," she said.

Wal-Mart spokesman Steven Restivo said discussions with community college leaders are "still in the early stages" but that the company was working with city officials, the business community and nonprofit organizations on a comprehensive plan "to give D.C. residents the job training and work readiness skills they need to be competitive now and in the future."

Restivo would not say how much the company or the foundation might be willing to contribute financially. Wal-Mart, which reported $405 billion in fiscal 2010 sales, announced in June that it would make $20 million in charitable gifts in Chicago, where it plans to open several dozen stores. Gueverra said that the community college's existing workforce training programs - separate from its traditional academic programs - should serve about 2,000 students this year at a cost of $4.5 million to $5 million.

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