Wal-Mart, educators, entrepreneurs tout need for STEM education

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 282 views 

At any given time Wal-Mart Stores said it has 800 or more openings for coders and information technology (IT) systems architects at its corporate offices in Bentonville. And that doesn’t include similar workforce needs at the 14 headquarters it maintains around the world.

This talent shortage is a problem as the demand for IT specialists, engineers and software developers far outpaces the supply, according to Rick Webb, senior vice president of global business processes at Wal-Mart Stores. Webb was one of the speakers to address business and education professionals and students attending the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce Biz+Ed Conference held at Bentonville High School on Tuesday (June 23).

Michael Poore, superintendent of Bentonville Schools, also spoke about the upcoming IT curriculum being incorporated at the high school this fall. The curriculum, known as CAPS and more recently dubbed “Ignite,” is modeled after TATA’s work in the Kansas City school system.

Poore said Phase I of the new technology curriculum will be an IT Solutions class taught this first year. Students in this class will work with the TATA Consultancy Group on real business problems. Students are also being offered internships at Wal-Mart’s Information Systems Division in Bentonville. He said the goal of Ignite is to ready more high students to enter the workforce upon graduation. Students in Bentonville’s Ignite tech program will walk away with up to six hours of college credit and a certifiable workforce endorsement from the University of Arkansas.

Webb said Wal-Mart is constantly scouring the globe for the tech and engineering talent it needs and unfortunately is forced to outsource offshore too many projects because of lack of in-house talent. He said the internship opportunity will help because the future is moving much faster than the retail world can manage. Webb, an engineer, made a plea to the students to consider that field as well.

Webb conducted a poll of the students attending from Bentonville, Rogers, Fayetteville, Decatur and Green Forest Schools about what field of work most interested them. Hands down, the majority of students cited financial, investment banking careers, while half as many cited coding, software development or data analytics. Oddly enough no one cited robotics or systems hardware, which Webb said is perhaps one of the most fascinating fields as tech wearables and the “Internet of things” become more commonplace.

Webb said Wal-Mart is working fast on a robot that will be soon patrol the aisles of local stores as the retailer tests its ability to scan products, check for out-of-stocks and report the findings. He said this is just the tip of the iceberg for where automated technology is going in the retail world and elsewhere. Webb said Wal-Mart is working with technology group out of Pennsylvania on the robot project.

Logistics and supply chain is another area Wal-Mart is rallying the troops to find efficiencies in shipping one item at a time given the retailer’s entire history and infrastructure was built to ship cases of product.

Michael Paladino, chief technology officer for Rev Unit, told The City Wire that the growing talent shortage is precisely the reason it decided to help sponsor Monday’s event. If Wal-Mart can’t find enough tech and engineering talent that's a red flag for all sized companies.

“Recruiting for the high school ranks is just one option but more has to be done to ready a workforce sorely needed today,” Paladino said.

He said Ozark STEM Education is working for this cause along with the NWA Tech Council looking to bridge the talent gap.

Poore said 60% of job openings today require STEM literacy and 42% require advanced STEM knowledge. The U.S.Workforce Skills Round Table in December 2014 estimated that in the next five years employers expect to replace 1 million jobs requiring STEM literacy.

“Students today who get a STEM, or STEAM, education are never going to be unemployed,” Webb told the group.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, the components of STEM ready an individual for intense problem solving that can lead to innovation. He said the best teams will also include members who are strong in softer skills which are associated with the Arts, such as communication, passion, empathy. Webb said a STEAM education produces very well-rounded individuals who can work in many different fields.