Episode 2 – Rita Kelly, Acelero Learning
Acelero Learning has provided services to Head Start, the leading early childhood and family engagement program in the United States, for over 20 years. Its focus is on closing the Achievement Gap for children and families nationwide.
Ensuring education and family centers can open and stay staffed to serve thousands of families across the country, Acelero Learning’s hiring team faces challenges such as the talent gap in education and filling empty seats in underrepresented communities.
This episode of The Speed to Hire Show features Rita Kelly, the Senior Director of Talent Acquisition at Acelero Learning:
- [6:50] Moving quickly in the hiring process: start with a strategy call to develop a clear job description and evaluation process
- [14:11] Screening for roles with a high number of applicants: build a clear profile of each candidate by structuring the early screening process
- [19:34] Consistently looking for opportunities to streamline processes: identify the bottlenecks in the hiring process by opening the floor for feedback from hiring managers
- [26:09] Getting hiring manager buy-in: encourage change-management ambassadors to demonstrate the benefit to everyone and employ coaching
- [29:04] Reducing bias in evaluations: create a system to mitigate groupthink and/or the influence of a singular perspective
JOSH TOLAN: To start, just tell me a little bit about Acelero.
RITA KELLY: OK, so Acelero is doing business as Acelero Learning and Shine Early Learning. We operate Head Start programs throughout the country, and Early Head Start as well. And we also provide training and technical assistance to other Head Start programs and early childhood programs. We also support entire states with their early childcare providers.
JOSH TOLAN: Very cool. And what’s your role over there?
RITA KELLY: Senior director of talent acquisition. So I oversee the recruiting department for the network.
JOSH TOLAN: OK, cool. And what’s the makeup of that team? How many people?
RITA KELLY: We have 12 recruiters on the team made up of senior recruiters, recruiters, and recruiters on demand. That’s like our substitute teacher model. We bring them in to ebb and flow with the volume of requisitions that we have. And we’re looking to add coordinators as well.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. And so your talent acquisition function then is completely separate from HR?
RITA KELLY: Correct.
JOSH TOLAN: OK, cool.
RITA KELLY: Yeah, we created the shared services model back in ’16 to pull it from, it was housed in HR. Whoever can do talent acquisition– whoever can do recruiting does it. And then we obviously found out it’s a whole full-time job. So we separated that out and created a shared services model.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. And what was the catalyst for that switch? Was it just purely volume, couldn’t keep up with everything going on?
RITA KELLY: Yeah, I think it was optimizing the processes, lack of consistency. Because, again, we’re throughout the network so we have multiple delegates, and multiple business units working on recruiting to implement a consistent process. And just more time on recruiting would equal better time to fill management of openings and decrease the number of openings because an opening would affect our services, children, and families. So a multitude of factors go into that decision.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. Got it. Great points. So tell me about the types of roles that you’re recruiting for.
RITA KELLY: Yeah, so we operate like a big school system. And then, so we have anywhere from cooks in the kitchen, substitute teachers, and teachers in the classroom to manning our education department, family services, health, and nutrition. We support the whole child. So it’s not just education, it’s mental, physical, everything, and family services too. So we support the families.
And then we have our executive team. So we can support all the way up to the CEO, VP, and senior director levels. We also have sales and marketing and communications, finance, legal, HR, and everything that goes into running a large company.
JOSH TOLAN: That’s a lot. So with the team that you have, do you have folks who specialize in certain areas? Do you have a couple of people focus just on educational roles versus executive?
RITA KELLY: It’s a good question. So we’re evolving as we go. It started with the department of three recruiters just handling everything, doing full cycle everything. But now, we’re starting to specialize in food services, family services, and facilities so that the recruiters can focus on education roles because that’s where we serve the children and families in the classroom. If we can’t open a classroom, we can’t do what we’re here to do.
So there’s that, but then there’s also executive level searches, management level searches. So right now, our recruiters are handling management positions as they come. We’re working on scaffolding that so that there is an executive recruiter. And then education, we’re looking to build in specialties so that we can have the recruiter focus in their area.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, it makes a lot of sense. And you mentioned that you have recruiters on demand. Is that because there’s just some seasonality to your hiring?
RITA KELLY: There is. And then we also have growth. So we had an expansion in New Jersey of 100 new employees needed to support additional classrooms, which is a wonderful thing. We’re serving more children and families, but that means a lot more staff. So we needed to bring in additional recruiters for that. And then, of course, if there’s turnover or additional services, and then just our day-to-day operations with a headcount of 1,500 just that– a lot.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, and you guys have an interesting situation compared to a typical corporation. Because, yeah, a typical company’s speed to hire is important because there’s lost productivity by not having somebody in a seat. In your instance, the consequences are even bigger because if you, to your point, if you don’t have teachers, you can’t open a classroom. So there is some real-time pressure there. So what types of challenges does that create for you, guys?
RITA KELLY: Lots of challenges in terms of what you just mentioned. How we’ve been trying to mitigate that is working on our screening processing. So we’re not taking up too much time screening – we’re using texting, or Spark Hire, or Google form questionnaires to get the screening done so that we can quickly move them forward to the hiring manager. Previous to these tools, it created a bottleneck in terms of just the volume that a single recruiter could handle.
And we also want to give that human touch. We care about our candidates. We want them to succeed here in whatever capacity. And we don’t just consider them for the job they applied for, we consider them for where could they make an impact with us. So we want to have those meaningful conversations. So it is a conflict among the team of human touch versus these other tools, but finding the balance there.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, it’s the constant dilemma of speed, quality, candidate experience. You have to factor all these things in under the context of what the organization needs as well. You need people, you need the vast, or operations can’t continue like we said. The consequences for you guys are much higher.
And as far as hiring managers go, how many of those folks are you supporting? Because I have to imagine with all these different roles you have to coordinate with– I don’t dozens, hundreds of people.
RITA KELLY: Yeah, I mean, I would say dozens per business unit. So dozens per business unit. Every manager that operates a center, all the directors of the service areas, we are managing many, many hiring managers.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, and that’s obviously a challenge as well with a team of I believe you said 12 to coordinate with all those different people across all those different roles. And then how do you guys collaborate with them on the front end of the hiring process to make sure, in order to move quickly, you obviously have to have a really good handle on what they’re looking for because you’re all about getting people in front of the hiring managers fast. So do you guys have some type of meeting or intake at the beginning?
RITA KELLY: Yeah, we typically have a strategy call or an intake call regarding what they’re looking for beyond the job description. What are the unsaid things that you’re looking for, or particular things for this role that you’re looking for? We could require bilingual in order to support the population we’re serving, that type of thing. For the constant positions that we normally have, like teacher assistant, teacher family advocates, may not require an intake call because we’re looking for that same profile over again.
But when we have a new position, obviously, we do a lot of work on developing the job description and seeing what– we’re also working on scorecards that definitely define the outcomes of the role so that we can relay that to candidates. And then also assess that in a measurable way throughout the interviewing process to reduce the bias in the process as well, which is one of our goals for the company as well.
JOSH TOLAN: Great, and so you’ve got all these different roles. Do you guys have a pretty standard hiring process, or does it vary widely from role to role?
RITA KELLY: I would say it varies by level. So with the higher volume positions, there’s one process. It could be more high touch. And certainly, at the executive level, there’s a lot more factors and processes within the protocol.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure. OK, so take me through, let’s say, a high-volume role. You’re getting a lot of people applying, you’ve got to coordinate with multiple hiring managers. Can you just take me through what the stages of that process look like?
RITA KELLY: Sure. So we have applicants apply. The recruiter would go in. And we have 24 to 48 hours that a recruiter should be looking at new candidates to assess them. We also have credential verification. That’s another step in our organization that other organizations may not have to go through because you could provide your transcript or your diploma right away or your certification.
Ours is more, we have to assess their qualifications. We actually have to count, for instance, their number of early childhood education courses that they have in their transcripts. Which ones count for early childhood? So we have a bit more when it comes to that. So we would be asking for their qualifications. That takes time.
We may be doing one of three things that I mentioned, so texting, Google form survey, or the Spark Hire video, to get questions answered in order to make it easier on the recruiter to have maybe a 5 or 10-minute conversation versus the 15 to 30-minute conversation to save time.
So once we have that screening process done and eligibility verification, we would then send them on to the hiring manager for review. The hiring manager reviews the candidate. They could then either set them up for an interview themselves or the recruiting team sets them up. So again, that varies by hiring manager. And then, the interview is in person or virtual.
And depending on the role, we could have a working session. So teachers, for instance, could do a demo lesson. A data specialist would have a working exercise to do, an executive would have a thought exercise or a presentation to do. And then we would have in-person interviews or virtual interviews, and then selection, and then we go on to offer.
JOSH TOLAN: Sure, yeah, so a really holistic process. And that’s why it’s so important for you guys to screen very well on the front end because if you have the wrong fit later in the process, that’s not only a waste of a lot of people’s time, internally but also of the candidates if they get to the end and it’s like, this is just not a match. So I can see why you have to have a pretty strong vetting process early on. So when we talk about high volume, what does that look like for you, guys? Just to give people a picture of the average number of applicants for a high-volume role.
RITA KELLY: Well, it’s changed. It’s ebbed and flowed throughout my career here. I’ve been here for 15 years. And since the pandemic — during the pandemic, since the pandemic. So we could get– so I consider high volume role like teachers assistant, teachers floaters.
And I say high volume in that, we have a lot of openings for that or we always have openings for that, not necessarily we always have a lot of candidates. And where we don’t have a lot of candidates, we could have those more personal conversations. It’s where we have the high volume. I would say a high volume would be 30 candidates per requisition. And we have over 300 requisitions for the company. So that’s our high.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, so significant. So it’s a combination. Then the volume that presents sometimes a challenge for you, guys. It’s a combination of just having a lot of jobs. And then on top of that, for some of those jobs having more applicants than you can speak, have very personal lengthy conversations early on in the process if you want to be able to speak and hear from all the candidates that are qualified based on their credentials and based on the resume of their application, everything that was submitted to you, guys.
RITA KELLY: And those are the frequent openings. When we have high-level positions, so VPs, SVP, chief, we could see anywhere from 200 to 600 applicants coming through. So that is where we utilize these screening tools to kind of just filter down a little bit before we dive in.
JOSH TOLAN: And have you seen an increase, like, since the pandemic in the number of applicants per role? I know that’s something we’ve seen internally. Maybe it’s because we’ve got more remote openings, but I feel like we’ve just seen such a spike as far as overall applicant flow from every single source.
RITA KELLY: We have not. And again, that might be an industry situation. Because we’re in education, and I don’t know if you’re aware, but there is a national teacher shortage. So in education, obviously, they need to be in the classroom, and there’s a lot of people that decided during the pandemic that’s not for them anymore.
So we do struggle with volume of candidates right now. And unless, like you said, it’s remote, it’s management, we actually — we used to put more weight on, OK, if a recruiter has a management level role, they should have less — like, that’s harder, right?
Well, now, management-level roles are easier to fill than our line staff. So we need more time and resources and effort into our line staffing than management staffing. Because we get the candidates. They’re dedicated. They’re quick to respond. They do the assignments. They are more aligned with the salary. So the struggle is in our front-line staff.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. OK. So it varies then, depending on the role or the level. So in those scenarios in which it’s managerial or more executive-level role, you’re getting, let’s call it, a few hundred people applying. Are you taking them through a similar front-end screening process?
RITA KELLY: Yeah. The screening process for them looks like a Google form with a variety of questions, about five questions, and also the Spark Hire video that has three to five questions as well. So the Google form questions are more general, and then the Spark Hire questions are more specific and get into the priorities for the role. And where I went to the scorecard, we would have outcome-based questions on the Spark Hire video.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. So the combination of all that information you’re gathering then helps you build a more clear profile of who that candidate is and then helps you make better decisions about whether or not they advance in the process.
RITA KELLY: Correct.
JOSH TOLAN: And are you finding a lot of those — like, if you’re getting a few hundred people applying, are a lot of those folks advancing to that step, or do you move everybody to that step? What’s the threshold?
RITA KELLY: Yeah. So we’ve tried it in a few different ways. Because we’re piloting our executive search process right now, we’re trying different things, so we have situations where on the job description, on the job posting, there are three steps.
A candidate, if they want to proceed, they have to apply for the role, they have to do the Google form questions, and then, the last question on the Google form is the Spark Hire link to complete. So a completed application in our eyes is the application, the Google form questions, and the Spark Hire. That is considered a complete application.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. So it’s automated all the way through, then.
RITA KELLY: All the way through. That’s for our executive level right now. Manager level, we typically take in the candidates that we have. We then narrow it down. We could send a Google form right away, and then, based on the Google form answers, send them the video. Because, again, we do want to honor all the candidates’ time and experience in this. So we will then narrow it down and then send the video.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. And what’s the difference between those roles, where you would have more executives go straight to it, versus for more managerial level roles, you’re vetting some people before and then advancing the shortlist to it?
RITA KELLY: I would say it’s the volume, the number. Again, I mentioned we have several hundred applications. We need to really narrow the field before sharing it with the hiring manager and whatnot. And I have to say, after, let’s say, 600 candidates, then we can narrow it down to 30 to 40 to present to the hiring manager, to work together to then narrow it down to 10, to then narrow it down to four, to then narrow it down to the top two or one.
JOSH TOLAN: Nice. OK. And so we’re in the beginning of the year here. So I know you mentioned reducing, removing bias as one of the goals for you guys. What else is top of mind for you this year?
RITA KELLY: Well, we’re going through a reorg. So like I mentioned, we do business as Acelero Learning and Shine Early Learning. So we have an initiative internally that we call One Inc, where we’re bringing those two together. There are a lot of great minds and brilliant people here. And what some of us are doing at Acelero are different than what some of us are doing at Shine. So we want to bring them together to– just we could be better together.
So there is a new structure, a new org chart proposal to bring us together. And that includes some leadership positions to oversee kind of both parts. So leadership positions are designed to support the different functional areas in our goals to grow.
I think a big strategy this year is growth and development. That could mean taking on new Head Start programs ourselves. We have four delegates right now, we could grow to more delegates or we can grow to support more states with their early childhood programs, and more individual companies with their programs as well. So strategy and growth is a huge goal this year.
JOSH TOLAN: Sounds like a lot of work. Now, is there a separate TA team for the other org that you need to merge into one or are you guys right now serving both organizations?
RITA KELLY: We’re all on the same team.
JOSH TOLAN: OK, got it. So is it mostly then — there’s obviously a lot of moving parts to it – but from a recruiting standpoint, do you have to go back to the drawing board on all of your employer branding, all of your comms, everything to align with just this new single brand or–
RITA KELLY: Well, I think it’s we may be going through a rebranding, but the idea is we’re still doing business. They are two separate companies because we’re doing two different functions. We’re operating the actual Head Start program in Acelero Learning, and then in Shine Early Learning, we’re assisting others with their early childhood program, whether that be Head Start or a private early childhood provider. So I think we’re going to keep those brands but internally work as one.
JOSH TOLAN: Very cool. So you mentioned earlier, you’ve been there for 15 years, so you’ve probably seen a lot of things in your time there. I don’t know how big you guys were when you started, but it seems like there’s been a lot of growth.
So you obviously have a pretty mature hiring process. You’ve implemented a lot of different strategies, you’re dealing with a wide range of roles, a lot of applicants, and a lot of hiring managers. But for folks that are watching this later on and are encountering some of the challenges that you guys face, where would you help somebody start?
If they’re like, OK, I’ve got a lot of openings. And for some of those roles, I’ve got a lot of candidates. Where is the first place I start pulling this all together? Because oftentimes, what we see is that just ends up dragging the hiring process out for those organizations, and they’re kind of left behind in a race for talent.
So like if you were coming in fresh to where you’re at now, saw a lot of the challenges you’re facing, and there wasn’t a lot of infrastructure to support that, what are some of the things you might start with?
RITA KELLY: Yeah, well, I would start with a listening tour with hiring managers, with stakeholders, leaders, to see what their priorities are and their goals, what are their goals? So that’s one step. And then within the team or within the recruiting function or if there’s not a recruiting function, where are the bottlenecks? Where are the pain points?
So if you said this company just has a ton of candidates and they don’t know where to start. If you have a ton of candidates, let’s work with them. So finding out, doing a lot of demos of tools to be used for screening. So just for our company, personally, we decided on Google form. It’s free, it’s easy, it’s customizable, and it gives the candidate time to do it on their own when they have time. So send out that screening.
There’s the Spark Hire platform that we utilize. Develop three to five questions that are going to narrow down the pool to move those candidates forward. That’s for the priority of multiple candidates. That’s a good problem to have if you have so many candidates for a lot of roles. So it really is identifying what the pain points are to find the solutions to those issues.
JOSH TOLAN: Great And if we pivot a little bit to Spark Hire, you guys are obviously a customer. We’ve talked about a couple of times throughout this recording. What are some — it sounds like you’ve integrated into multiple areas of you’re hiring process for different roles. If you had to give a new Spark Hire customer just starting out some advice on how to get buy-in from candidates because for most candidates this is something new to them.
What are things that you’ve done to really — I know you said your candidates are important, you want to personalize as much as possible. What are some things that you’ve done to help with that?
RITA KELLY: That’s a good question because we have had some pushback to say, I don’t want to do this, I’d rather talk to somebody in person. We have indicated that this is a standardized part of the process, and we want to learn more about you so that we can have more meaningful conversations when we do speak. So it’s more about learning more from them and about them so we can have more meaningful conversations.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, I think that makes sense. I think oftentimes when this is something that’s new for a candidate, they think this is some kind of replacement for a future step in the hiring process. Like, oh, I’ll never get to talk to somebody or something like that. But the reality is, and what we try and communicate to candidates and what we try and coach customers to communicate to candidates, is it’s actually a benefit to the candidate.
Because the reality is like you said, if you have 300 people applying without the proper tools and technology to get through that, there’s going to be a lot of people that just might not make the cut and might never get an opportunity to tell their story, add context to their experience, talk, get in front of a “hiring manager,” quote-unquote, just because there’s not enough time.
And so oftentimes, that’s what we coach folks on. This isn’t like a replacement for an eventual in-person, face-to-face type of conversation, it’s actually to help, one, get you in front of that hiring manager and do it a lot faster. And there are a lot of benefits for a candidate as well. But it’s certainly like an educational thing as are all new things.
Tell me about what other– I know you mentioned Google form, Spark Hire. What other technologies are you guys using? Do you guys have an ATS?
RITA KELLY: We do have an ATS, it’s Workday. So Workday — I don’t know how to say this. They weren’t built as an ATS. So they’ve invested a lot of time and energy into building the recruiting functionality. They just have a lot more to go. But I do appreciate Workday’s brainstorming community and the fact that they are taking notes and suggestions for the future.
So we do struggle a little bit with the current state Workday recruiting ATS, but we’re making the most of it. It operates very fundamentally as an ATS. It’s just more of that candidate engagement, CRM, I mean, and there are separate vendors for just CRM but I’d love to see more of a pipelining, functionality, and tagging. I mean, there is tagging and you could build a talent pool, it’s just that measure of engagement and pulling those out.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. And are your hiring managers — I know there’s a lot of them – are they interacting in Workday? Are they reviewing Spark Hire interviews? What’s their involvement with the technology that you guys have implemented?
RITA KELLY: Yeah, that’s a good question. So we only implemented Workday. We went to Leo in 2021. It seems like yesterday, so it’s like we’ve only had it for a little over a year. And it takes for anybody that’s implemented a new HIRS or ATS, it takes a lot of change management.
So we have hiring managers in there. When a hiring manager’s on a requisition, they can see all the candidates. We send them the candidate through Workday, and then they indicate whether or not they’re interested, which is great. You can tag notes. So there are some managers that have adopted that and run with it, and they take more accountability for their search process. And then there are other managers stick to email and sending things over email and things like that that we have to groom to transition to utilizing Workday as we’ve designed it.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, and I mean, that’s a challenge for everybody, especially when you have a lot of hiring managers, is just herding everybody to use the same methodology, use your structured process, use the tools that you’ve implemented to help make things more efficient for them. Has there been anything that you found to work really well in getting hiring managers bought into that process?
I know you said there are some that still need to groom a little bit to get out of email and that type of stuff. Is there anything you guys have done to really coach them on the why behind using these different tools?
RITA KELLY: I think – what we’ve had is change management ambassadors. So it’s other hiring managers that buy into this that we can spread their message and not just say, you need to do this. It’s getting the buy-in from their colleagues to show them how it can actually benefit everyone. So there’s that. And then there’s also one-on-one coaching.
So like you mentioned, we have a lot of hiring managers. But what we found to be most effective as a partner is to sit down with them, and go through their inbox in Workday, which is if you have Workday, you know what that means. And go through the tasks that they have in Workday, reviewing candidates in Workday so that they can see. So it’s really showing them how it could be beneficial.
And then you asked me a question too, do you share the Spark Hire video with hiring managers? So yes, we do. And the way we do that, because again with the — and the higher level of if you’re hiring for a manager, then that hiring manager is at a higher level. They may not be in Workday so much.
So for those roles, we often create a spreadsheet of the candidates with their resumes or we upload the resumes into Spark Hire, which is a functionality of that. And so we provide the resume and then the link. And then there’s a rating system based on the outcomes of the scorecard. So we’ve made it very measurable so that the hiring manager can assess each candidate based on the outcomes of the scorecard.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it.
RITA KELLY: And the Spark Hire video is one data point in that process.
JOSH TOLAN: Got it. And how do the hiring managers respond to getting the videos?
RITA KELLY: Very well. They really enjoyed the process. They liked seeing the questions and then having the questions related to the outcomes was very helpful in determining who they want to see in person or do the working exercise or the thought exercise or bring them forward. They really have taken well to the videos.
JOSH TOLAN: Good. Well and especially if you’re doing that intake meeting or that strategy call like you said at the beginning of the hiring process, and if you can collaborate with them on those questions, that adds so much value for them when all of a sudden they’re getting these interviews with the questions being answered that they agreed to. It gives them all the context that they need in order to make a quicker decision, which is good for everybody. Good for you, good for them, good for the organization, and ultimately, good for the candidate as well.
RITA KELLY: Right. Well, I do want to add in part of our goal to reduce bias, we have stakeholders, so we have a selection committee. So it’s not just one person making the decision to hire someone or not hire someone. So we found that that’s really critical. So we have a stake, we have a committee, and we have these spreadsheets. And each person gets a separate spreadsheet, so they can’t see what other people are reading so that there’s no groupthink. We’ve developed a very measurable, more scientific way to measure candidates to reduce bias.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up because I think that’s key in any hiring process regardless of the tools that you’re using, is to get more than just one person involved in the decision-making process. Because then you’re subject to that person’s opinions versus a true evaluation across multiple people that understand objectively what it takes to succeed in that role and what you guys are looking for. So I think there are a lot of benefits of getting multiple people involved at different stages of the process. And the easier you can make it for them, the better, right?
RITA KELLY: Right.
JOSH TOLAN: And that’s, I think, another benefit for you guys that you can relate to your candidates as well in your hiring process is that we have multiple stakeholders that are contributing to this process. So you’re not going through this process, and there’s one person that’s determining whether or not you’re going to work here. I think that’s oftentimes something that candidates complain about is like, oh, talked to the recruiter or they just didn’t like me, so it didn’t work out. But now, since you have a committee, it’s again, a more holistic view of the candidate.
So I think between your process with the stages, the tools that you’re using to get a full picture or profile of that candidate, and then the process you have on the people side in your organization with the committee and the way you’ve structured scorecards and not enabling groupthink, those two pieces come together and make for a really effective hiring process. So I’m impressed. I think you guys are killing it. So congrats.
RITA KELLY: Thank you. I appreciate that.
JOSH TOLAN: Yeah, I mean, this has been really, really helpful. I really appreciate your time. I know everybody that’s watching this is going to really appreciate your insights. You guys are doing a lot of things with a lot of moving parts. Two brands, hundreds of roles, thousands of applicants, it’s a lot going on. So I definitely appreciate you coming on and spending some time with me. And yeah, just looking forward to continuing to work with you and wishing you guys all the best in 2023.
RITA KELLY: Great, thank you so much. I enjoy talking shop, so this is a fun conversation.