State touted at Walmart event

Governor, ‘Dirty Jobs’ host among Open Call speakers

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (foreground second from left) listens to televisio show host Mike Rowe on Tuesday Oct. 24 2023 at the annual Walmart Open Call event at the Walmart Home Office in Bentonville. Rowe host the show "Dirty Jobs." Go to for today's photo gallery. (NWA Democrat-Gazette/Flip Putthoff)

BENTONVILLE -- Walmart Inc.' s 10th annual Open Call event opened Tuesday with remarks by Gov. Sarah Sanders, who plugged Arkansas' thriving economy and low unemployment rate.

Sanders spoke at the morning session to many of the 700 wannabe Walmart suppliers who'd traveled to the company's headquarters from all over the country to pitch their products to Walmart and Sam's Club merchants. A Walmart spokesman said more than 1,000 people would attend the two-day event.

In 30-minute, one-on-one meetings today, each entrepreneur and business representative will try to convince their buyer that their product needs to be on Walmart's or Sam's Club's store shelves.

Some will get a "golden ticket," meaning they secured deals to get their products in stores or clubs, either nationwide or in a limited number of stores.

Others will get advice such as how to improve their product, scale its production or spruce up their marketing plan.

On Tuesday, though, attendees heard from speakers such as Sanders and Mike Rowe, host of the TV show "Dirty Jobs" and creator of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation.

As Rowe was traveling the country in 2008, filming episodes of the show in mainly rural areas, he saw "help wanted" signs everywhere.

But when he talked to business owners seeking employees, they told him they couldn't find workers with the needed skills such as plumbing, pipe fitting and brick laying.

Rowe's foundation aims to change the stigma against skilled labor and awards scholarships each year to help people train for the type of jobs that are in demand. So far, it has given $5 million in work ethic scholarships and to other programs working to change the skills gap.

A four-year college degree isn't for everyone, Rowe said.

"America is lending money it doesn't have to kids who can't pay it back to train them for jobs that no longer exist," Rowe said in an interview with Jason Fremstad, Walmart's senior vice president of supplier development, sourcing.

As a society, Rowe said, "we've gotten so binary, with the blue collar and the white collar."

His ultimate goal, he said, is to blend the two, with blue-collar workers having some white collar skills and vice versa.

During Rowe's talk, Fremstad surprised him with a $25,000 check from Walmart for his foundation.

Open Call is Walmart's largest sourcing event, helping the retailer move toward its 2013 commitment to invest $250 billion over 20 years in products made, assembled or sourced in the U.S.

In March 2021, the company pledged another $350 billion over 10 years.

Walmart has estimated that the funds will create more than 750,000 jobs.

Fremstad said planning for Open Call starts about five months before the event. Getting hundreds of meetings done within a few hours "takes a lot of coordination," he said.

Walmart receives many thousands of applications each year. Out of these, Walmart selects the applicants it will invite to Bentonville for the big event.