Justin Hutchinson was working at a smoothie shop in his native Baton Rouge, trying to save money for his tuition to Louisiana State University, which he was struggling to pay after the death of his father. Hutchinson was a popular employee: He’d memorize customers’ orders and even their cars so he could start blending their smoothies as they pulled up. One regular, a marketing CEO, recognized his “people skills,” and offered him an internship at his marketing agency, ThreeSixtyEight. On that new path, Hutchinson made the tough decision to leave school to avoid continuing to rack up debt, still nervous it could impact his career. But five years later, Hutchinson is now the agency’s business development director.
While deserved, Hutchinson’s success story is relatively rare for people without a four-year college degree. Opportunities have long been smarter for job seekers without degrees, but companies are increasing the practice of screening them out. That means groups that have been a valuable part of the workforce for decades now see their prospects shrinking even further. A new PSA campaign aims to create a cultural shift, demonstrating to employers that a lack of a bachelor’s degree doesn’t mean applicants aren’t qualified; that these individuals can be trained through other routes and that it makes business sense to hire them. The efforts are already seeing traction: 15 companies have signed on to make a commitment to ease pathways for candidates without a four-year degree.
Individuals “skilled through alternative routes,” dubbed STARs, are those 25 years and older in the labor force without a bachelor’s degree, but who instead have an associate’s degree, some community college courses, on-the-job training, certificate programs, or military service. The term was coined in 2019 by the organization Opportunity@Work to “emphasize their skills and pivot away from pedigree and credentials,” says Will Villota, vice president of marketing and communications. It’s not a negligible number: there are 70 million STARs, the group says, who account for half the US workforce.
Despite these workers’ alternative qualifications, in the past 40 years there has been a drop in their workforce participation because employers have been increasingly less eager to hire workers without degrees, in what the Harvard Business Review called “degree inflation.” Starting in the 1980s, increasing globalization and automation sent more jobs abroad and replaced middle-skill workers with machines, reducing the number of jobs available for manual and routine office work. Employers became pickier for the positions left, and the Great Recession further thinned opportunities, compounding the problem.
According to an Opportunity@Work report, in 2000, STARs held 54% of jobs with chances for upward mobility; now, that number is 46%. They filled only 1.8 million of 17.2 million jobs of this caliber that have been added to the market in the past two decades. Most recently, the rise of digital applications and algorithms can automatically eliminate applicants without four-year degrees as a way to shrink short lists, Villota says. The organization has identified 30 industries with the most displaced workers due to increased degree requirements, including registered nurses and computer programmers, fields also experiencing worker shortages.
To fight those generalizations, the Ad Council created a PSA campaign with Opportunity@Work and Ogilvy to show the capacity to excel that these workers have. The campaign, which will be promoted across all platforms, centers around “tearing the paper ceiling” (in which the paper represents a degree). The phrase “gives us a vocabulary where we can really talk about the inequities that are holding back so many people in the workforce,” says Michelle Hillman, the Ad Council’s chief campaign development officer. “We’re trying to change the narrative around the workforce.”
Even when they’re hired, these employees earn significantly less than their college-educated counterparts, taking 30 years to earn the same salary as a graduate right out of college. “As a society, we’re equating 30 years of work experience with four years of college,” Villota says, “and that just doesn’t pass the smell test.” Today, they’re also earning less on average than they did in 1976.
The problem particularly affects certain demographic group: 61% of Black workers are STARs, as are 55% of Latinos, 61% of veterans, and 66% of rural residents. “Suddenly, you realize that’s half the workforce,” Villota says. They become a massive talent pool as businesses seek to fill roles, particularly, he adds, as a strategy for meeting company diversity goals. The campaign calls for employers to simply remove any degree requirements where possible, and to identify these employees already in the organization and provide them with a path forward. “What a crime it is if you’ve already got STARs, and you don’t give them a pathway to mobility,” Villota says. “They end up having to find that elsewhere.”
Various companies are already championing the campaign. Some have their own in-house training, like Accenture’s Apprenticeship Program and IBM’s free SkillsBuild program; IBM also has pledged to remove the four-year degree requirement for half of their US job listings. Businesses could probably afford to eliminate requirements for even more jobs, Villota says. “But it does mean that they’re committed to raising awareness of this issue.”
Google is also supporting the campaign, chiefly through Google Career Certificate, an online program started in 2018 that trains individuals in five different digital-job areas, including UX, data analytics, and e-commerce. These were chosen because they’re high paying, high growth, and high demand, says Lisa Gevelber, founder and head of Grow with Google, the company’s $1 billion commitment to create more equitable economic opportunity, currently featuring 1.5 million available jobs. “Lots of companies just can’t even find the talent they need that’s trained up for these jobs,” she says. The program, which has graduated 300,000 people, is available on Coursera for $39 a month; Gevelber says most people complete it in three to six months.
These certificates can set people up for jobs at Google (although Gevelber says the company doesn’t require degrees for most of their positions), and they’re also recognized by 150 other companies. For instance, Deloitte added some elements to the data analytics course to include mastery of SQL and R, two programming languages that the company requires of candidates. “We built it right into the certificate,” Gevelber says. “And now, we’re a preferred hiring credential for Deloitte.”
The campaign’s focus on employers is an effort to relieve the burden on workers to advocate forcefully for themselves, considering the bulk of power is in employers’ hands. And there are success stories: According to Opportunity@Work, about 4 million of the 70 million have torn through the paper ceiling, landing themselves in high-wage jobs. But those opportunities are still relatively infrequent and, as in Hutchinson’s case, involve some luck. “If we can start screening in STARs rather than screening them out,” Villota says, “it’ll shift from happenstance to more intentional and more normative practices.”