HR Tech Interview with Rya Conrad-Bradshaw, VP, Corporate Markets, Workforce Skills at Cengage Group

Journey into Tech

Please share a little bit about your journey and what inspired you to start at Cengage.

I’ve spent the last 10+ years at the intersection of education and employment. Over that time, I’ve seen these two areas come closer and closer together as each sector realizes its reliance on the other, and exciting innovation start to happen. To make individuals and businesses successful, you have to know how to navigate the ecosystem of employers, academic institutions, government and non-profit workforce agencies; I’ve spent my time at all three, which gives a unique lens on crafting solutions that work locally and scale and deliver real outcomes. For me, seeing the individual impact that education can have on economic mobility has been my primary motivation—this is what ultimately matters to students who invest in education, and we in the sector can do more to ensure students realize that potential. I came to Cengage because I knew this company had both the assets and the appetite to create solutions that meaningfully connect students to opportunity, and that we could do it in a way that really serves employers needs for quality and scale.

What key challenges are employers facing when finding talent for entry level roles, particularly in fields where the talent crunch is most severe?

 The reality is, in many sectors there are more open jobs than qualified workers to fill them, so employers need to think differently about how they approach hiring. I think about this primarily in two ways: 1) how do you open your aperture of who you’re screening for; and 2) how do you invest in creating new talent where you can’t find it in the market.

On the first, for years,employers have used degrees as a primary screening mechanism in the hiring process; in many cases it results in employers discounting the exact workers they want to attract. Rather than relying on degrees for entry-level roles and excluding the roughly 60% of American workers who do not have a four-year degree, moving to a skills-based hiring approach immediately expands the pool of available talent.

One thing the pandemic has done, as traditional college enrollments have declined, is spotlight the value of alternative education paths that enable learners to take more affordable courses on their own schedules and earn stackable credentials that provide them with employable skills. The programs are typically shorter allowing learners to gain the skills they need and more quickly transition to the workforce.

On the second, we see employers investing in entry-level talent to build the skill profiles they need. This can be done pre-hire through partnerships to create talent pipeline initiatives, or by upskilling incumbent employees in areas where you have critical gaps. We see both these strategies increasingly employed by our healthcare and cybersecurity partners, who have critical talent gaps that are predicted to last for years. These employers have recognized they need to do things differently and are investing commensurately.

The last point I’ll mention is that employers need to examine the quality of their jobs. Workers have options now, including jobs that start at $20+/hour with benefits and are making rational decisions. You have to make sure your jobs can be just as attractive. Our latest research suggests how important training can be here to invest in employees and help to develop career pathways–in fact, 29% of Great Resigners say the primary reason they accepted their new role was that the employer provided a clear path to growth and development.

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What advice do you have for employers looking to expand their candidate pool and offer more training and development opportunities for current and prospective staff?

Expanding skilling and train-to-hire opportunities is proven to help employers attract and retain talent as we saw with our recent research. So, for employers looking to expand their pool of candidates, they should make a stronger effort to promote their learning initiatives in job listings and throughout the interview process. And employers don’t have to go at this alone. By partnering with their local community college or other education training providers,employers can play an important role in making sure learners are actually learning the skills they will need on the job and are valued in their workplace. Apprenticeships or earn-and-learn programs are another great way to reach an untapped talent pool and there are many organizations today that help employers stand up apprenticeship programs in non-traditional areas like technology and cybersecurity.

We have found that talent need really determines the talent strategy. A pre-hire training program builds a net new pipeline of talent specifically skilled for certain hard-to-fill roles. Upskilling initiatives can support retention as well as ensure employees for the specific skills necessary for an evolving field, such as cybersecurity.

We’ve also sometimes seen these internal upskilling efforts falter. One of the pitfalls we see is ensuring employeeshave dedicated time to complete upskilling programs, and managers making a continuous effort to encourage staff to take advantage of these opportunities. Though it always feels like there’s endless day-to-day work, investing in these capabilities today pays off in the long run.

How did the pandemic change the workforce management landscape?

One thing we saw with the pandemic was a shift in power among the workforce. With a greater supply of open jobs than workers to fill them, and with many people reevaluating their priorities amid the pandemic, we saw workers quitting in droves with the Great Resignation. Beyond pay and burnout, which was driving many “Great Resigners” to quit early in the pandemic, today Resigners are more motivated to find an employer that offers them a clear path to growth and development. In fact, two in three Great Resigners(66%) say access to employer-paid training and upskilling was an important factor in accepting their new job.

Even before the pandemic, employers were taking a more active role in the education of their workforce. As technology and work change rapidly, workers need to keep pace with that change and continually reskill or upskill. Employers recognize this is important as well in order tostay competitive and innovative. Those employers that invest in training and development paths for current or potential employees can expect to see the benefit on their bottom line with reduced turnover costs and a more engaged, skilled workforce.

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What is Cengage and what are your core offerings? What is your vision for the company and the industry in general?

Cengage Group is an education technology company that enables student choice around the world. The organization has a 100-year history, and it strives to deliver affordable, high-quality digital products and personalized support to power learning individually and at scale. Cengage Group’s three business units – Cengage Academic, Cengage Work and Cengage Select – help millions of students every year in over 125 countries achieve their education and career goals and lead choice-filled lives.

Cengage Work, the business unit I am a part of, provides flexible, affordable online courses and programs to help adults rapidly gain the skills needed to be job ready. Our programs have already helped more than 3.5M people develop new skills, and this year more than 250,000 people will access Cengage Work products and services to gain employable skills, complete required training or pursue a new skillset in high demand fields such as allied health and cybersecurity.

I joined to build an employer-centric talent development offering to ensure that employers not only have access to our award-winning courses and course materials, but also build out tailored solutions for recruiting qualified candidates and upskilling incumbent talent. We can create scaled solutions that work at a local level given our reach of more than 2,000 education institutions and training organizations that sit in every community. For employers, a single solution that can be localized to different regions and customized to specific skilling needs is what will ensure that students of all ages get connected to jobs and employers get connected to talent.

Please share the major milestones you manage to achieve in 2023.

We are launching healthcare and IT and cyber talent placement solutions – which we call Ready2Hire. We’ve been in stealth mode the past year, working with two big hospital systems to develop the undergirding technology to ensure net new talent is screened, trained, and onboarded seamlessly. Hospital systems have hiring needs in the hundreds for many entry-level roles. We want to ensure for them we can fill at least half of that demand, if not more.

We’re also working on an IT and cyber talent placement solution, using our award-winning Infosec Institute cybersecurity training products. Infosec has support upskilling internally at companies for the past 20 years. A strategic funnel of talent is a critical next step to being a wholistic talent partner for one of the most sensitive talent areas. There will be some other partnerships in this area we’ll be excited to announce, as well.

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Why should business leaders take a heightened interest in career development and mobility initiatives for their talent pool? Could you spell out some of the best career mobility programs that piqued your interest in recent times?

 In a past life, I worked with major employers to design their attraction programs for entry-level talent, including Hyatt’s RiseHY, Bank of America’s Pathways, The Home Depot’s Path to Pro, and Blackstone Group’s Career Pathways initiatives. These are incredible examples of big companies making significant strategic investments in creating net new hiring funnels and alternative talent pipelines. From afar, I’ve also watched IBM and Accenture’s incredible leadership surrounding skills-based hiring, employment pathways, and apprenticeships. Each of these initiatives was driven by a real business need, led from the top with buy-in all the way down to line managers, and funded appropriately. Each of these programs also provided atrue ROI.

When employers prioritize professional development and provide accessible routes for upward mobility, they are simultaneously strengthening their workforce and giving their staff another reason to stay. Giving employees opportunities to upskill or learn through hands-on experience ensures that they are getting the continuous training needed to succeed and move up the ladder.

One such example of ROI is from a recent report published by Bain & Co. and non-profit Grads of Life.Industry leader HEB built significant training initiatives for their employees and saw their work pay off: 53% of employees say they would not leave even if they were offered a job with better pay, and 79% say they are excited to go to work every day. Investing in employees’ skills and professional development will make employees feel valued and fulfilled at work, leading to longer tenure. Research has shown that upskilling investments pay off, as 79% of L&D professionals say it’s more cost-effective than acquiring new talent in addition to cutting back on attrition costs.

Thank you, Rya Conrad-Bradshaw! That was fun and hope to see you back on HR Tech Series soon.

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Rya Conrad-Bradshaw is Director of College and XBA Partnerships. She is also a Fullbridge Coach and has led programs at a number of colleges, universities, and for law firm partners.

As a former consultant at McKinsey & Company, Rya focused on strategy, marketing, and organizational functions in the consumer space, with particular interest.

in organizational learning. Before transitioning into business, Rya worked in a number of arts organizations, including as the founding manager of the international partnership program and educational technology applications at the New Museum, in addition to other international non-profits across sectors.

Rya completed her MBA at MIT Sloan, where she was a teaching assistant in macroeconomics, strategy, marketing, and leadership development.

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With more than 100 years serving learners, Cengage Group is a global edtech company that enables student choice. No matter how, where, when or why someone wants to learn, our portfolio of education businesses supports all students, from middle school through graduate school and skills education, with quality content and technology. Collectively, our three business units – Cengage Academic, Cengage Work and Cengage Select – help millions of students each year in more than 125 countries achieve their education and career goals and lead choice-filled lives.