LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Nate Waits wakes up before 3 a.m. four days a week to get to his job at a Bentonville distribution center for Wal-Mart Stores Inc., where the former Marine is among more than 92,000 veterans the company has hired in the past two years.
As the two-year anniversary approaches of the Veterans Welcome Home Commitment program the company launched on Memorial Day 2013, the retail giant announced Wednesday that it is expanding its original plan to hire 100,000 veterans by 2018 to hire a total of 250,000 recently discharged veterans by 2020.
Chris Sultemeier, executive vice president for logistics at Wal-Mart, said the company has been pleased with the skills that the veterans bring to a range of positions including retail, distribution and management. He said about 8,000 of the original hires have already been promoted.
"Veterans work. They're disciplined; they're teamwork focused. They have a hard work ethic. They're typically committed and loyal," said Sultemeier, who is an Army veteran. "What we are looking for in an associate and what the military teaches them... It just matches."
Waits, 25, says he doesn't mind the early mornings or the structured day. He manages about 45 employees at the distribution center who load and unload trailers.
If the company is successful, the 250,000 veterans would make up close to 20 percent of the retailer's 1.3 million U.S. workers.
Sultemeier said there are high concentrations of veteran hires near large military bases like Fort Hood in Texas or Fort Bragg in North Carolina. But the company also has helped qualified veterans, who have been honorably discharged since Memorial Day 2013, find work in areas where there are often fewer job options.
In many parts of rural Arkansas, manufacturing and other once-common jobs have migrated to other parts of the country or the world, said Terre McLendon, the director of Community and Industry Studies at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's Institute for Economic Advancement.
"The rural areas in Arkansas and probably a great deal of the U.S. have fewer opportunities today than has been the case in the past, and the kinds of opportunities are limited for them," McLendon said, also noting that Arkansas-based Wal-Mart got its start by building stores in rural communities.
Bentonville, where Wal-Mart is based, has about 40,000 residents — not rural compared to many places in Arkansas. But it was a more affordable place for Waits and his wife to raise their two children. The Cincinnati, Ohio, native knew he planned to move to the area when he was discharged from the Marines after four years of active duty and two tours in Afghanistan.
Waits said he applied for positions at several companies, but in the end Wal-Mart's veteran initiative swayed him.
"I wanted to work for a company that wanted me," Waits said. "It wasn't a thing where they said, we're going to do this good deed. It was more that I had the skills they wanted, and they wanted me to earn the job. It was more than just publicity. It was genuine."