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The Job: Paper Ceiling

The Job
A national ad campaign will push back on the dominance of the bachelor’s degree in hiring. Also, reflections on the narrative around alternatives to college, and research on the role of work experience in lifetime earnings.

Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash
Changing the Narrative
A new national advertising campaign will seek to influence employers to look beyond the four-year degree in hiring, with the message that a “paper ceiling” holds back half the U.S. workforce.
The ads from Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council are slated to start running in September. With slick production and some big corporate partners, including Walmart and Google, the campaign is designed to nudge hiring managers across the country to make good on the growing number of pledges from company C-suites, state capitals, and the White House to drop barriers for skilled job seekers who lack bachelor’s degrees.
This group of more than 70M Americans includes community college graduates, experienced workers, veterans of the U.S. military, and completers of job training programs or alternatives to college, according to the nonprofit Opportunity@Work. The ads will celebrate these workers, which the group says are skilled through alternative routes (STARs).
The campaign’s primary audience is employers, however. Byron Auguste, Opportunity@Work’s CEO, says it will seek to redefine what it means to be a skilled worker.
“Companies like the ones we’re proud to call partners in this effort—and those we hope to join by this fall—can lead the way by tapping into skilled talent from a far wider range of backgrounds to do the work and solve the problems of our post-pandemic economy,” he says.
Research has found that fewer job listings are calling for degrees. Yet the “emerging degree reset” identified recently by the Burning Glass Institute is a complex picture, with real but small changes beginning before the pandemic. Between 2017 and 2019, for example, the number of posted jobs for computer programmers requiring a bachelor’s dropped about 5 percent. 
The unprecedented job market has upped the ante, as employers struggle to fill jobs while millions of frontline workers are finding better-paying and more stable roles.
Some advocates for lower-income workers may welcome the new ad campaign’s attempt to push back on credential inflation and employers’ long-standing focus on the academic pedigree of job seekers. But the message will feel like a broadside to some in traditional higher education, which is being buffeted by enrollment declines, hostile Republican lawmakers, and criticism about its failures to improve economic mobility.
Opportunity@Work argues that its push to drop degree requirements is about unlocking economic opportunity for more Americans—most Black, Latino, and rural workers are STARs—and it’s not intended to steer people away from college.
“If we want to rebuild economic mobility, we must see both college and ‘alternative routes’ as viable ways to build a thriving labor force and a path to the middle class,” Kate Naranjo, director of the STARs Policy Project for the group, wrote in a recent essay for Work Shift.
The shifting narrative around higher education and its trendy but boutique alternatives—such as apprenticeships, bootcamps, or certificates from Big Tech companies—was a central theme of discussions at JFF’s meeting in New Orleans, where the ad campaign was announced.
Many conference attendees were both excited and daunted by the work of trying to open up pathways to good jobs for Americans from lower-income backgrounds—a wicked problem with tentacles that reach into many of society’s challenges. The failing U.S. childcare system, for example, contributes to educational and workforce inequity, with no fix in sight.
Most parents want their children to attend a four-year college, and people often are skeptical about alternative routes. Likewise, big companies that are trying to improve how they hire or educate and train employees from underserved backgrounds tend to be tight-lipped about those efforts—another theme that emerged at JFF’s conference.
But it’s a safe bet that the energy around skills-based hiring and alternatives to the four-year degree will continue to build over the next couple years.
The Kicker: “We’re not telling young people to beat the odds. We’re trying to change the odds,” said one conference attendee.
Putting a Price on Work Experience
Speaking of odds, you’ve all seen the stats that college, on average, pays off—but that doesn’t mean it pays off for everyone. And there are people who do make it good with just a high school education. Differences in race, gender, college majors, and career fields all play a role.
A new analysis by the McKinsey Global Institute finds that work experience—especially a good first employer and bold career moves—has a particularly large influence on lifetime earnings. That’s especially true for workers who start out in the lowest-paying jobs.
The details: The researchers found that experience, as opposed to formal education and baseline skills, accounted for 40 percent of lifetime earnings for the average American worker.
  • For those who started out in the lowest-paying roles but moved up at least one income quintile, experience counted for 56 to 70 percent of their lifetime earnings—with those who moved up the farthest relying the most on experience.
Critically, the researchers were able to dig into what kind of work experience seemed to matter most. And they found that working for an effective employer in your first job and bold career moves were particularly important for upward mobility.
  • At organizations that ranked in the top quintile for training hours, for example, 37 percent of workers who started their careers there would eventually advance to a higher income quintile.
  • At the lowest-ranked firms, only 23 percent of workers would do the same. 
The most upwardly-mobile workers in the United States also made both frequent and bold career moves.
  • People who moved into higher income quintiles averaged 4.6 job moves during the analyzed period, while those who stayed flat averaged 3.7 moves.
  • The upwardly mobile also stretched themselves more—with each new job requiring skills that, on average, were 30 to 40 percent new to them. Those who stayed flat only stretched their skills 20 to 30 percent with each move.
Those differences compound with each move, the authors noted, resulting in a far bigger shift in capabilities and responsibilities over the course of a career.
The Kicker: Those bold moves, however, require employers who are willing to promote or hire someone who isn’t perfectly qualified for a role. And the analysis found that workers often have to switch companies to get those chances.
“Individuals can’t make bold moves that represent a real leap unless an employer sees their potential and takes a chance on hiring them.”
By Elyse Ashburn. Read more about the report over at Work Shift.
Related Articles from Work Shift
For millennials at work, a growing divide between haves and have-nots
 
The college payoff: ROI and economic mobility
 
Open Tabs
Labor Market
Wages for rank-and-file workers are rising at the fastest rate in decades, particularly for lower-wage occupations in fields such as leisure and hospitality, reports Jeanna Smialek for The New York Times. Higher wages may be encouraging more Americans to skip college or job training. But labor economists say that decision could come at a price, including job stability, in the long run.
Gainful Employment
The Institute for College Access and Success modeled the impact of an earnings threshold proposed by the Biden administration as part of a new gainful employment rule for career education programs. TICAS found that for-profit institutions would operate the largest share of failing programs under the high school earnings floor, with more than 40 percent of covered programs at for-profits falling short.
Maine Policy
Maine will spend $12.3M more on apprenticeships and pre-apprenticeships, Janet Mills, the state’s Democratic governor, announced this week. The new state support for 14 organizations—which include unions, healthcare and construction companies, career education nonprofits, and K-12 districts—will add more than 3K apprenticeships, more than doubling current opportunities in the state.
Community colleges in Maine have seen a flood of interest after the state launched a free community college program for high school students who graduated during the pandemic. Central Maine Community College, for example, has seen a 20 percent increase in registrations and deposits compared to this time last year, according to Inside Higher Ed. The growth comes after several years of steep enrollment declines.
Pre-K Education
Eight colleges and universities in Illinois will begin piloting a new modular curriculum and a set of competency-based assessments for their infant and toddler education programs. The approach is designed to maximize credit for prior learning—especially for the state’s existing early-childhood workforce—and to increase access to quality credentials. The project expands on work the state has already done to focus all early-childhood education programs on competencies.
Career Coaching
The Rework America Alliance is expanding to five new cities—Detroit, Houston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Philadelphia—with funding from JPMorgan Chase. The alliance will work with community organizations to provide career-coaching tools designed for Black, Latino, and low-income communities in those cities. It also will work with local employers to open up more jobs to workers without degrees.
College ROI
The Texas Public Policy Foundation released its latest analysis of college graduate earnings, based on updated data from the U.S. Department of Education. Fields like nursing, for both associate and bachelor’s programs, and computer science and engineering, at the bachelor’s level, continue to show the highest median wages three years out.
Job Training
SkillUp has redesigned its platform for workers who are looking to upgrade their skills, drawing on the experiences and feedback of the 850K people who have used the platform since it launched two years ago. The group updated its training catalog, added a category of “earn and learn jobs,” and increased access to free group coaching.
I’ll email a reader survey on Monday. The Job will return next Thursday. Thanks for reading. —@paulfain
 
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