The Great Reskilling: Cengage CEO Michael Hansen says higher ed must meet demand

The pandemic opened up huge possibilities for online learning and shorter-term credentials to help meet the needs of students and employers.

Back in January, ed tech company Cengage released a report on the Great Resignation occurring throughout the United States. During that month, 4.3 million quit their jobs. The next month, another 4.4 million left their positions. The reasons varied, but more than three-quarters of respondents to Cengage’s survey said they wanted to make more money and felt burned out. They also said they felt like they weren’t growing in their positions.

An astounding 11.3 million jobs remain open across the nation because connections can’t be made between would-be employees and employers. Most candidates want to pursue new careers but feel they lack the skills to get there. Employers also stress that students coming out of college are ill-equipped to meet the needs of available positions.

While the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need for colleges to evolve and prepare students more than ever—and notably, adult learners looking to reskill—the progress has been slow. Education experts say employers must help in the effort to get the next generation trained up, but higher education has a significant role to play, too. Heady colleges and universities are providing those paths.

“Our current labor shortage is in part due to a need to skill more workers in in-demand industries, but also because of archaic hiring practices, broad degree requirements and a need for more support for alternative career pathways, like apprenticeships,” says Michael Hansen, CEO at Cengage. “Especially amid the Great Resignation—or as I like to refer to it, the Great Reassessment—workers are enrolling in courses and online training to reskill into other industries and may not have a traditional college degree to quantify their breadth of knowledge, competencies or experiences.”

Embracing those options, along with the further expansion of Pell to include online that Hansen and others have been pressing for, is key to building that pipeline from students to higher education to businesses. Being flexible means offering multiple learning modalities, providing short-term credentials, embracing open educational resources and partnering with companies and community organizations.

Michael Hansen

Hansen and Cengage are providing an assist. Aside from digital learning platforms that empower instructors, they have become key voices in higher ed to bridge those gaps. Hansen took part Monday in an all-star panel session to discuss pathways through higher education at the ASU-GSV Summit in San Diego with 2U and edX’s Anant Agarwal, Coursera’s Jeff Maggioncalda, Skillsoft’s Jeff Tarr and Ascend Learning’s Gregory Sebasky. Prior to the session, University Business asked Hansen to talk more about the convergence of online and higher education and the potential pathways that can help improve workforce outcomes.

What is the future of online learning? Where can we expect to see growth in the coming year or so?

Many students are wanting—even expecting—at least some courses to be fully online. They are also seeing the benefits and flexibility that hybrid or hyflex courses can offer. Most students today are non-traditional—older, living off-campus and have jobs or family responsibilities—so their education experience needs to flex to their lives. Online learning enables that.

Where we will continue to see growth is in short-term, non-credit and workforce aligned online training. The population of high school grads is shrinking, but there is demand among older adults looking to upskill, reskill or switch careers. There is a real opportunity for academic institutions to harness that demand with shorter, flexible and more affordable programs. Quality online education provides a way to do that, giving full-time workers, parents and even “traditional” students the opportunity to gain new skills and knowledge sought by in-demand industries.

Have colleges embraced the idea of offering that flexibility for students?

Institutions willing to experiment while understanding that there isn’t a “one-size fits all” approach are having the most success. We work with institutions like Ivy Tech Community College in Indiana, one of the largest community college systems in the country, to help lower the cost of course materials. Ivy Tech partners with open educational resource and commercial providers to supply materials and online learning platforms for their students. Ivy Tech actually used CARES funding to purchase Cengage Unlimited for Institutions and cover costs for students, eliminating a major barrier to education. They have also experimented with shorter-term courses and work directly with employers to develop local talent.

Flexible and short-term courses represent a huge opportunity for academic institutions, and many schools are experimenting with partners to meet that demand. In our ed2go business, which works directly with institutions to offer short-term, workforce-aligned online courses, enrollments doubled during the pandemic. Many people were suddenly unemployed and needing to gain new skills to find another job, while others were simply looking to switch careers or fields. This winter, we surveyed 1,200 adults who had recently resigned or were seriously considering resigning (Great Resigners Report), and 78% of resigners said they enrolled in online training opportunities to give them a leg-up in the search for their next job. Again, academic institutions have an opportunity to leverage this demand for continual skills-based learning.

Besides Ivy Tech, are there good examples of higher education institutions that have been able to forge those pathways?

Arizona State University, Western Governors University and Southern New Hampshire have led the way, challenging the status quo and rethinking higher education. In a LinkedIn Live session I recently did with Marni Baker-Stein, Chief Academic Officer and Provost at WGU, she discussed how WGU tags their offerings to the development of key employability skills. It sounds simple, but is incredibly important for four-year students to more easily demonstrate their skills to employers.

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What are some of the benefits that Cengage has seen over the past decade, and particularly since the pandemic started, in terms of impact on students and preparing them for the world of work?

Long before the pandemic hit, employers said recent college graduates lacked key employability skills, and recent graduates said they lacked opportunities to develop those key job skills. In a survey we did last spring, almost half of higher ed graduates said they wouldn’t apply to entry-level jobs because they didn’t feel they had the right skills. In short, we need to ensure graduates are job-ready, not just degree ready.

Learners are telling us they want more flexibility. They want more workforce-aligned education, and they want it to be affordable. If anything, I hope it has brought higher education and employers closer together. We’re seeing it through the overwhelming interest in our rapidly growing Workforce Skills offerings. I have also been encouraged by the growing acceptance of alternate pathways to gaining key skills, and by the fact that many employers—including Cengage Group—are adjusting hiring practices and removing degree requirements for many roles.

Are we still seeing disparities in terms of access to online learning for certain groups of students?

There is a huge population of students who are excluded from education due to affordability barriers. There are some important partnerships happening between different organizations to help people gain access to training and/or on-the-job skilling opportunities, but that needs to scale. In general, we need to rethink how we measure higher education—not by its exclusivity but by its inclusivity. In order for more people to realize the benefits of education, they need to be able to afford it. For example, limiting the use of Pell by excluding online programs is only exacerbating those disparities.

What are some trends you are focused on for the future?

The biggest trend we’re seeing is the growing appetite for our Workforce Skills offerings. Recently we acquired Infosec, a leading provider of cybersecurity education and training. Cybersecurity is one area where the skills gap is deep and has far-reaching consequences. Today, there are nearly 600,000 unfilled cybersecurity jobs in the U.S., but more than half require at least one certification. On top of that, cyber attacks have been on the rise as the workforce remains remote. I’m excited to help develop more cybersecurity professionals and close these gaps.

Overall, there is a lot of excitement about the edtech space as online learning has grown during the pandemic. In addition, the willingness by provosts, presidents and CEOs to experiment with different models and tools has enabled needed change in higher education. I hope we keep that experimental spirit moving forward. These are exciting times for everyone as we redefine a new normal. We’re keeping our eyes on the ultimate and shared goal of helping learners achieve their goals.

Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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