Wal-Mart SVP Rick Webb: NWA Needs Employees Educated in STEM

Wal-Mart SVP Rick Webb: NWA Needs Employees Educated in STEM
Rick Webb

Rick Webb said he had two reasons for wanting to participate in the Biz + Ed Conference on Tuesday at Bentonville High School.

Webb, senior vice president for global business processes at Wal-Mart Stores, was the keynote speaker at the daylong meeting held by the Northwest Arkansas Tech Council. The council is working to awaken and support an “ecosystem” for technology education and startup ventures, goals that Webb fully supports.

Webb, in his opening remarks, said he wants a robust ecosystem for personal reasons so his children and grandchildren still have a reason and place to work in northwest Arkansas in 20 years. On a professional level, Webb said, Wal-Mart needs vast numbers of technologically advanced workers and needs them as soon as possible.

“There are a lot of people who are very passionate about building an ecosystem in northwest Arkansas,” Webb said. “It’s the right thing to do. It’s exciting. We’re making good progress but we’re behind right now. We have to accelerate the efforts. We have to grow this area and it’s going to take all of us to do that.”

Webb was speaking to a mixture of high school students and business representatives in an auditorium at Bentonville High School. Earlier, Bentonville School Superintendent Michael Poore spoke of how his district is set to start its Ignite program to partner information technology students with Tata Consulting Services of Bentonville and the plans to start similar programs in construction, logistics and health services.

“The goal is to get students more engaged and prepared,” Poore said.

The conference was hosted by the Bentonville-Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce and sponsored by RevUnit, a digital software firm, of Bentonville. Students from Bentonville, Fayetteville, Rogers, Decatur and Greenland later worked with business representatives to solve a business problem.

The council said that Nauman Malik and Kyle Jiang of Fayetteville won the first prize of $1,000 and an internship. Webb said part of the reason for the conference was to bring business and students together: demand and supply.

Webb said the supply of IT-ready workers is in the critical stage. The Wal-Mart systems group has openings for 800 code writers, and that’s just in the Bentonville office, he said.

“Supply and demand for people in STEM right now is far short of what we need out there,” said Webb, referring to science, technology, engineering and mathematics education. “You’re never going to be unemployed if you have a STEM education. I can almost guarantee that. We’re running really hot right now.”

‘We Need More Talent’

The demand for highly skilled workers in northwest Arkansas is part of the reason for the area’s rapid upgrade in culture. Museums, music venues, trails, restaurants are all meant to make the area more attractive — “make Bentonville a cooler place,” Webb said — to outside hires because local supply can’t keep up with demand.

“We’re short right now,” Webb said. “We can hire all that we can get. We’d love to hire here locally. We’re having to go literally around the country and around the world to hire people and bring them to northwest Arkansas. We need more talent.”

The tech council has held a summit and now a Biz + Ed conference, and director Bill Akins hopes the modest beginnings lead to bigger and better things in the future. The turnout Tuesday was approximately 40, split evenly between business and students.

Michael Paladino, the founder and chief technological officer at RevUnit, said it was an easy call for RevUnit to put up the money to hold the event.

“This is getting access to the future thought leaders of northwest Arkansas,” Paladino said. “It’s getting the opportunity to help shape that process. The small investment we put into that pays off in spades.”

Webb said there are myriad important fields students can find opportunity in. Wal-Mart’s supply chain workers have to organize 1 billion cases of shipment every year, but many of today’s consumers order single items for home delivery.

Webb, who has a doctorate in industrial engineering from Oklahoma State, said being an engineer means solving problems.

“Engineers used to do their jobs in isolation,” Webb said. “STEM graduates do their jobs best in partnership. The most effective team is … cross-disciplined. We need all those disciplines to work together.”