When Walmart began hiring for its new Neighborhood Market in Pinellas Park, 650 people applied for the 95 jobs.
Hundreds visited a hiring center set up in a nearby office building three months before July's store opening. Hundreds more applied online. The cashier spots, often the lowest-paying jobs in a store, drew the most interest — more than 300 applicants.
Frown upon Walmart all you want, but people are eager to work there.
Of course, some of it has to do with the post-recession attitude that any job is a good job. But don't discredit the power of Walmart, the world's largest private employer, with more than 1.3 million workers nationwide. With big numbers come big possibilities.
So who makes the final cut at a Walmart store? To find out, I polled several employees at the new Walmart at 7500 66th St. N. The 41,000-square-foot store is one of about 250 Neighborhood Markets, Walmart's fast-growing small-store format that focuses on groceries. Two dozen of them, including the Pinellas Park store, opened July 17.
I didn't have access to all 95 employees but interviewed a cross section of people, from young, single moms to high school graduates without college degrees and people recently laid off from other jobs.
Many applied with the hopes of advancing and earning the higher paycheck that comes with it. Not surprisingly, many had prior experience at fast-food restaurants, call centers and other retail businesses — other jobs known for their low pay but also low educational requirements.
Take Sophia Perkins, 25. She worked at Walgreens, a women's clothing store and two other Walmarts before landing a job as a cashier and merchandise stocker at the Pinellas Park store. A mother of a 4-year-old daughter, she has studied criminal justice and nursing but doesn't have an associate's degree. She likes being part of the Walmart family and wants to work in management. Her bubbly personality and big smile got her the job.
Or Shannon Simmons, a customer service manager with 30 years in the grocery business. He was one of about 2,000 people who lost their jobs this year when Sweetbay Supermarket closed 33 underperforming stores in Florida. He saw the Walmart going up near his home in Seminole and wanted "to get his foot in the door.''
Even store manager Jay Kerrick has an interesting story. He was a music major in college but got hooked on retail. He was working for Target when a friend at Walmart persuaded him to "jump ship.''
"We were having vastly different experiences in our work life,'' said Kerrick, 45.
Kerrick joined Walmart two years ago and was working as a shift manager at a Sarasota store when he got the manager post in Pinellas Park. He commutes every day from his home in Sarasota, proof to me that he likes what he does.
To be sure, it's tough to lump together management positions with the entry-level jobs most associated with Walmart. The pay for store managers ranges from $50,000 to $170,000 a year, with the top-paid manager earning $250,000 last year. By comparison, full-time minimum wage workers make $16,203 a year in Florida.
Worth noting, however, is that about 75 percent of Walmart's managers start as hourly associates. Promotions can be quick and frequent. Walmart says it promotes about 170,000 people a year to jobs with more responsibility and higher pay.
Translation: Stock shelves for minimum wage at 2 a.m. and maybe, eventually, you'll run the entire store.
That reality seems to serve as a big motivator for many of the applicants, especially those who see hard work as a more feasible route to success than going back to school.
I interviewed eight employees; every one said the potential for growth was a main reason they applied at Walmart. Nearly all said working with people was a major draw, which stood out given all the complaints about Walmart's customer service.
Shikera Jackson, 21, was working at an elementary school cafeteria in St. Petersburg but joined Walmart because the schedule was better for her and her 2-year-old son.
"I'm always shopping here and the prices are cheap, so I thought I might as well work here," said Jackson, who works as a price coordinator, changing prices on grocery products, rollback signs and clearance items.
As at most Walmart stores, the majority of employees work part time. Kerrick said he hired more part-timers at the onset knowing that he would boost some of them to full time. Others might get fewer hours once the store gets firmly established.
Walmart considers anyone working 34 to 40 hours a week full time. Full-time associates are eligible for health and other benefits after six months. Part-timers can get them after one year if they work an average of 30 hours a week.
Emily Peters, 23, said the benefits and pay were major considerations when she took the job as the store's personnel support manager. Engaged with two daughters, she started working in the grocery business at age 16 and likes the unpredictable nature of the work.
"The first time I walked into the hiring center, everyone welcomed me with open arms," she said. "It felt right."
LaShawn Ross, 29, worked for McDonald's and Winn-Dixie but always want to join Walmart, a publicly traded company with annual sales of $466 billion. "They are huge, so I know there's a huge amount of opportunity to do whatever I want to do," she said.
Although she ultimately aspires to be a minister, she welcomes opportunities to stay at Walmart and rise through the ranks.
There's a good chance she will. Kerrick expects several of his 95 employees will be promoted at least once in the next six months.
Susan Thurston can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 225-3110.