Wal-Mart’s Rick Webb says nation must do more to boost STEM education

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 246 views 

Rick Webb is tasked with helping solve big problems and improving global processes at the world’s largest retailer. He leads a team of other engineers dispersed around the planet who depend on science, technology and math.

Webb, keynote speaker at the recent ARK Challenge Demo Day in Bentonville, said there are not enough advanced degreed scientists, technologists, engineers and mathematicians (STEM) in or entering the workforce. It’s why Wal-Mart and other STEM advocates continue to push for more educational opportunities.

He said engineering schools and universities need to do a better job integrating the colleges of business and technology with engineering and math disciplines so the graduates are better equipped to work on complex problems.

Wal-Mart’s fascination with hiring engineers is not new, according to retired Wal-Mart exec Andy Wilson. 

“The fascination of engineers have been going on for many years and it begin when Sam was alive. Sam understood that our competitive advantage was developing a distribution and supply chain systems. Building stores, stockrooms, transportation of merchandise, customer traffic flow, and flow of merchandise from stockroom to sales floor shelf has to be accomplished at a high rate of speed and efficiency. Every time a person touches a piece of merchandise it reduces the profit on the item and adds cost,” Wilson told The City Wire.

“The use of engineers has increased over the years due to size of stores, distribution and supply chain cost  and high sales per square foot to help control cost and improve efficiency,” Wilson added.

Over the past few years the retailer has added at least 600 engineers to its ranks to continually look at each process from the supplier to store shelves with goals of streamlining logistics and reducing costs.

“The bottom line is that engineers are critical to accomplishing the global footprint and profitability of Wal-mart,” Wilson said.

Webb said in his prior job with Walmart U.S., his team was focused on optimizing supercenter performance. Today as a senior vice president of Wal-Mart’s global system processes, Webb said his international team of engineers look at “whole” problems on a global scale.

“We see Wal-Mart as a global operation taking the best practices — those we build and  those we borrow from other retailers — configure ways to efficiently implement them on time. Take grocery delivery, which is already successful at ASDA, the next step was to build out a cross-functional team in Denver to fully test this service in the U.S.,” Webb said.

He said creating solutions with the use of technology is just part of the job because real solutions also must include process applications down to the hourly employee level. For instance, the new “Pickup Grocery” delivery model slated to open soon in Bentonville involves many processes that have to be perfected after the technology solution is complete.

“This Drive Up Grocery solution is a new concept in the U.S. but it’s quite common in France. In order for Wal-Mart to test it here, there was a lot of collaborative work to do to get this up and running,” Webb said.

He explained that on the tech side it starts with website capabilities that are user friendly with electronic and digital payment options. He said the logistics team that gets the order also will get some type of routing detail that tells them where the product is located in the small warehouse, so they don’t wander around looking for each item.

But the pickers also have to be trained in processes that require human discernment. For instance, what constitutes a ripe and suitable tomato for a customer who orders a pound or two online?

He said the consumer will scan their phone receipt into the kiosk when they enter the Drive Up facility. They will be prompted to pull into a covered lane area where they will wait for their order to be delivered within five minutes by an hourly employee.

Webb said complete cross-functional teams including engineers were put in place by Wal-Mart for Denver home delivery test and new Pickup Grocery center in Bentonville.

Webb said Wal-Mart is working to boost STEM education around the world. Karenann Terrell, chief information officer for Wal-Mart Stores and an engineer, recently shared similar concerns for the lack of engineers and technologies available for hire.

At the NWA Tech conference in August, Terrell said Wal-Mart is a retailer and that will never change, but it’s also tech invested and that’s the future for giving customers what they demand. She said Northwest Arkansas institutions must do a better job with STEM education.

“We have the opportunity here to make the University of Arkansas great. Wal-Mart and other companies have to be able to co-exist with entrepreneurial ventures and companies have to elevate the role of technology within their corporations investing in talent,” Terrell said.

Webb agreed, saying that with “Big Data” usage now becoming mainstream, demand will rise around the world and in all business sectors for technologists and engineers. He said the region, state and nation needs to do more to support STEM education, which he said is now a fragmented effort. 

“The world is watching,” Webb said.

Supervising an army of more than 500 IT and computer scientists, Terrell said the UA and most colleges have to put more emphasis on computer science graduates because just one in 17 technologists nationwide graduate with a degree in computer science. Terrell said technologists now working in retail today often earned a business degree

“As we see the business school’s entrepreneurial program feed the talent pool, there is much more to be done in computer science education,” Terrell said. “If we don’t, we will miss an opportunity.”

Webb also is a strong advocate for mentoring others who work and innovate with technological applications. He said the time he spends mentoring startup teams in Northwest Arkansas is one of the ways he keeps abreast of the newest ideas and technology uses.

“I have been challenged with staying fascinated in the midst of the constant retail grind. Working with these startup teams of entrepreneurs (NWArk Challenge) gives me a glimpse of what’s coming and I am always looking for applications for Wal-Mart,” Webb said.

He adds although 95% of Wal-Mart’s efforts are still focused on making sure its stores run smoothly and efficiently, it’s crucial to embrace the 5% spent on innovation.

“My supervisors have challenged me to plug into mentoring and other advocate positions that help to support STEM education and innovation. This leads me to wonder what we all might accomplish if we collaborate with this common purpose and a singular vision,” Webb said.