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Walmart US CEO talks inflation, self-checkout, and paying six-figures to non-college degree workers

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(NEW YORK) — In an exclusive and far-reaching interview with ABC News, John Furner, president and CEO of Walmart U.S., talked about the retail giant’s push to hire more non-college degree workers for high-paying corporate jobs at the company.

Currently, 75% of Walmart’s salaried managers began as hourly associates. High-performing Walmart managers at the store’s Supercenters now have the ability to earn more than $400,000 a year, which includes a new stock grant rewards program. Some of those managers have college degrees, while others do not — it is not required for the job.

“While college is great for some, it’s not exactly the right answer for everyone,” Furner told ABC News.

This year, Walmart says it has doubled the number of skills certificates it offers to help people move into higher-paying careers within the company, such as software engineers, data scientists, and opticians. Walmart says certificate programs take associates about four months on average to complete, compared to years for a degree.

“Let’s say you wanted to be a technician and work on HVAC, or if you wanted to be a truck driver, or robot tech, or a pharmacy tech. We have those programs where you can do that on the job while you’re working, and they lead to great careers,” Furner said.

Businesses are increasingly removing college degree requirements from some job descriptions and shifting to skills-based hiring. But a recent report from the Burning Glass Institute and Harvard Business School found that most companies that say they are adopting skills-first hiring are not actually translating that into practice.

The report found that Walmart was among the 37% of firms analyzed that, on average, hired 18% more non-degree workers for roles for which they removed the requirement for a college degree. Other so-called skills-based hiring leaders included Apple, Cigna, ExxonMobil, General Motors, Target, Tyson Foods, and Yelp.

In a first for the company, Walmart hosted an Opportunity Summit in Washington, D.C. this month, where it brought together executives from over a dozen major companies — including Accenture, Home Depot, McDonald’s, PepsiCo and Verizon — to discuss how they can coordinate efforts and make good on their promise to offer higher-paid jobs to non-degree workers.

The shift to skills-based hiring comes as the cost of a college education continues to rise. Boston University, Tufts and New York University are among the schools that now cost nearly $100,000 a year to attend.

“A lot of the skills that we’re talking about are also applicable across a number of companies in a number of industries,” said Furner. “What we hope for is that our associates learn more and stay with us, but we know sometimes they’re going to go on to other things, and if they can take those skills with them collectively, we’ll all be better off.”

Job growth is expected to continue at Walmart as it looks to open its first new stores in three years. The retailer plans to open 150 new stores and remodel 650 existing locations over the next five years.

Retail theft and the future of self-checkout

Furner acknowledged that the prevalence of shoplifting and organized retail crime across the country remains a challenge for retailers of all sizes. He says shrinkage — the industry term for merchandise loss due to theft — has increased at Walmart over the past two years. In response, the big-box retailer has been selectively removing self-checkout counters from some locations where there are more instances of shoplifting and mis-scanned items, but Furner told ABC News that self-checkout is not going away at Walmart.

“There are a few stores where we’ve made the decision that they’ll come out of, but we haven’t made that decision in every store,” he said. “Over the next few years, we’re really going to lean into new types of technology that can make the checkout process even better for customers.”

Target recently announced it would limit the number of items shoppers can buy at self-checkout lanes, while Dollar General plans to pull self-checkout counters from 300 of its stores.

“For the industry, the concern is it causes prices to go up and it can cause stores to close,” Furner said of the problem. “Retailers need to work with state and local law enforcement, with federal enforcement to keep our communities safe for our customers and to keep the cost of goods down.”

“Deflation” is showing up at Walmart

On the inflation front, Furner says he continues to see improvement: “At Walmart, we are now seeing prices that are in line with where they were 12 months ago. I haven’t been able to say that for a few years now.”

Furner also sees deflation in big categories like general merchandise, where some prices are below where they were a year ago. 

“The last few weeks, we’ve taken even more prices down in areas like produce and meat and fresh food,” Furner said.

Yet despite a recent rise in overall inflation in the past three months, Furner says he remains optimistic.

“What I’ve learned in the last few years is, it’s really hard to predict,” Furner said. “I’m feeling much better about inflation in terms of pricing versus a year ago, but we’re not finished.”

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