Wal-Mart has established a training academy for front-line supervisors at the Tuscarawas Street W store. The first class with 65 employees from stores eastern Ohio graduated on Tuesday.

CANTON  Wearing blue gowns draped with golden-yellow sashes, 65 employees marched through Wal-Mart's store at 4004 Tuscarawas St. W to a graduation ceremony early Tuesday morning.

The employees are department supervisors from 18 Wal-Mart stores around east central Ohio. They comprised the first graduating class from a training academy that has opened at the Wal-Mart Supercenter that is part of the Canton Centre Mall shopping district.

"Pride is what this academy is all about," Ray Hartman, Wal-Mart market manager, told the graduates during the ceremony. He described the academy as a finishing school that takes good people and gives them the education and knowledge to become better.

Wal-Mart has plans to open 200 training academies in stores around the country by the end of this year. The Canton academy is the fourth in Ohio and 99th overall. The fifth Ohio training academy was dedicated Thursday in Marysville. Other academies are in Findlay, Streetsboro and West Chester Township near Cincinnati.

The retailer is using training academies to help front-line supervisors build skills to allow them to successfully serve customers and lead their co-workers.

Meeting customer needs

Melissa Hug, department manager for the Canton Centre store's celebration, crafts, fabrics and stationery section, was part of the first graduating class. Hug, a Wal-Mart employee for three years, said the chance to attend the training academy made her nervous and excited.

The training program offered tips that helped her expand on her own experience assisting customers, Hug said.

"It's given me the knowledge, the skills to be able to have my department at 100 percent. To be able to own my department," she said.

Keeping customers happy is the top priority, Hug said. "The best compliment is one that comes from the customer."

Wal-Mart is working to change the way it trains employees with the goal of creating a better and consistent customer experience, said Jason Leisenring, a regional manager for stores in eastern Ohio and much of Pennsylvania. Change is necessary because the marketplace has changed as traditional brick-and-mortar stores face heavy competition from online services.

The company wants to arm employees with the tools and resources to succeed, Leisenring said. The academies offer consistent training and strive to teach the best way, he told the graduates. "We're investing at a very rapid rate in our people."

Canton site picked

Wal-Mart converted 2,750 square feet of warehouse storage at the rear of the store into an area with classrooms and meeting space. Meanwhile, 16 people were hired to lead the academy and teach classes. Many of the instructors came from Wal-Mart stores in the region.

Leisenring said the Canton Centre store was selected because of its location and size. As a superstore, it serves as a good training center for students. The location is central to the region and close to hotels and other amenities employees might need if they are traveling from outside the immediate area.

Wal-Mart employees at stores in Tuscarawas, Stark, Ashland, Belmont, Coshocton, Guernsey, Holmes, Knox, Muskingum, Summit, Washington and Wayne counties will be coming to the academy for training. Hourly supervisors participate in a two-week program, and there is a five-week program for assistant store managers.