The driving premise of Walmart’s recent report “America at Work: A National Mosaic and Roadmap for Tomorrow,” is neatly summarized in one of its opening lines, “automation promises to radically reshape the next generation of work in America.”
With rapid digital advancements shifting the experience of everyday life, it’s not surprising that the country’s leading retailer is discussing the investments needed to sustain a thriving workforce in the face of technological change. However, what is unique about this analysis, and what grabbed NACo’s attention, was the perspective that Walmart elevated for the report — the county lens. The centrality of local solutions and leadership are some of the main takeaways of their examination of the nation’s 3,000-plus counties. While the research’s unique design of “community archetypes” deconstructs traditional “urban vs. rural distinctions,” the report unpacks foundational strategies counties can target to respond to automation and can possibly spark broader pathways to capitalize on technological change.
Much like county governments, Americans interact with their local Walmart stores with tremendous frequency. With 1.5 million employees, the firm is the country’s largest employer. Ninety percent of Americans live within 15 minutes of a Walmart retail store. The connection to the daily life of residents is a theme for Walmart, and a recognition that the vitality of their business is only as strong as the health of the communities and the talent they can attract and grow. It’s probably true that the eight archetypes in the report, which range from dense urban cores to sparsely populated but resource-rich regions, are certain to raise some eyebrows, the utility of the categorization scheme is how it can drive action.
Six broad interventions are identified, and while they are not in themselves earth-shattering — maintaining infrastructure, modernizing the social safety net and firming up educational pipelines won’t shock any county leader — weighting the strategies by the archetypes is valuable. However, that also means engagement and coordination with many other stakeholders is essential and the company gets that. Indeed, in an interview with Fast Company, Walmart’s Chief Sustainability Officer Kathleen McLaughlin said “we need everybody at the table” to coordinate and activate efforts, and the relatively non-prescriptive approach of the report is really meant to “inspire conversation.”
In that spirit, Walmart connected with NACo to help curate the conversation they sought to inspire through engagement with member counties. Supporting communities on economic and workforce development strategies and investments is not new territory for NACo. But exploring the question of the “future of work” was a question that was timely and cutting edge.
Moreover, while Walmart in its report emphasized the impacts of automation potential in counties (or the proportion of time spent on job activities that technologies can automate) NACo wanted to further explore how counties can use the archetypes in their economic development planning and long-term visioning. NACo currently manages a suite of programming on economic development that is helping counties look at issues like rural economic diversification, creative placemaking and renewable energy. A major aspect of the new project will be to find synergies with these work areas and to explore how to best leverage the assets that counties own and operate (i.e. infrastructure, public works, hospitals, jails).
Beginning this summer, and with support of a grant from Walmart, NACo will begin probing the question of the impact of the future of work on local economies. There will be a handful of opportunities in the coming months through surveys and existing programs for member counties to connect and learn about this work. In the near term, counties will have a chance to hear about the study at the Annual Conference in Clark County, Nev., where Walmart representatives will present the findings at both the Community and Economic Development Committee meeting and the Programs and Services Committee Meeting.Hero 1