Group of multitethnic workers standing at work

Inside the Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign 

No degree, big problem. 

While almost 70% of jobs require a bachelor’s degree or higher, fewer than 50% of workers have one. 

“If you exclude people who are retired or people who are not of working age and are still in university, you end up with half of the workforce that doesn’t have a college degree,” says Will Villota, Vice President of Marketing and Communications at Opportunity@Work

What does this mean for the employment outlook for the 70 million workers who don’t have a four-year degree? 

Enter the Tear the Paper Ceiling campaign, launched in 2022 with Opportunity@Work, alongside nearly 50 national organizations and companies. The multi-year campaign calls on businesses and decision-makers to tear the “paper ceiling” – the invisible barrier that prevents workers without a bachelor’s degree from advancing in the workplace. 

“The stereotype people have about that workforce is that no degree means no skill,” says Villota. “One of our primary goals is to shatter those myths.”

Skilled Workers Without Degrees

At the center of the Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign are STARs. STARs are defined as workers who don’t have a degree but are Skilled Through Alternative Routes like community college, workplace training, military service or on-the-job learning. 

“This is language that we hope will become synonymous with workers who don’t have a bachelor’s degree. By using the more positive labeling, it will trigger the awareness that they don’t have a degree, but they do have skills,” says Villota. 

STARs include workers in every sector of the workforce at all stages of their careers. The Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign shares the stories of Angel Pla and LaShana Lewis. Both were forced to drop out of college because of financial issues. 

Pla amassed years of skills with the U.S. Coast Guard, while Lewis was just a few credits shy of a computer programming degree. For years, they were overlooked for jobs because they lacked college degrees. After Walmart (No. 26 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 companies for Diversity list) and Mastercard (No. 2 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 companies for Diversity list) focused on their skills instead of their degrees, they were able to break through the paper ceiling. Both individuals exemplify the racial and cultural diversity of STARs in the U.S.

“When you look at that half of the workforce, they are disproportionately people of color,” says Villota. “Sixty-one percent of STARs are Black and 55% are Hispanic or Latino. A majority of veterans are STARs. A majority of rural workers are STARs. If we’re talking about diversity in the workforce and you’re a decision maker in that space, you need to build your diversity strategy to include STARs or you’re not going to be successful.”

READ: The Rising Tide: The OneTen Project

Companies & Organizations Leading the Tear

There isn’t a company in the U.S. that can claim to have completely torn through the paper ceiling. 

“They’re all at different stages in their journey,” says Villota. “Some are farther along than others. The champions are the ones who have the most explicit stories around ways that they’re tearing the paper ceiling.” 

Champions

Accenture (No. 1 on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 companies for Diversity list) has been cited as one of the champions of the Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign. 

Since 2016, Accenture has helped bridge the gap between talent and opportunity with its apprenticeship program. Typically after a 12-month apprenticeship, the program provides a pathway to a full-time role with the company. To date, Accenture has hired more than 2,000 apprentices.

“Through our Apprenticeship Program, we continue to take steps to look at new and diverse talent pools to find people for our organization and create greater access to digital economy jobs for skilled workers facing degree barriers,” says Wendy Cambor, managing director and talent strategy lead at Accenture North America. “Our Apprenticeship Program is a success because it is inclusive by design, and we do that by minimizing barriers to entry and widening the aperture of how we find talent.”

Allies 

Comcast NBC Universal (No 7. on DiversityInc’s 2022 Top 50 companies for Diversity list) is among the half-dozen allies of the Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign. 

“While not everyone has the same access to a quality education, we believe that all Americans should have equal opportunity to fully participate and excel in our dynamic economy,” says Loren Hudson, SVP and Chief Diversity Officer, Comcast Cable. “By supporting STARs, we are working to ensure that more skilled workers are given access to competitive wage-earning jobs through alternative pathways.

Comcast has made strides and created a pipeline of entry-level engineering talent by upskilling frontline workers for careers in technology through Comcast Grows to Code.  

“In addition, where possible, we remove the four-year degree requirements from our Technology, Product and Experience team’s open job requisitions to create opportunities to broaden our talent pool,” says Hudson.

Supporters

The SkillUp Coalition worked with Opportunity@Work before the campaign was launched and is now one of its supporters. SkillUp helps workers leverage their skills and connects them with the resources to help grow their careers. 

“We are very worker focused, as you can imagine,” says Steven Lee, Executive Director of the SkillUp Coalition. “We need to reach workers and workers need to come to our side to take advantage. That’s what Tear the Paper Ceiling does, at least in my mind, it breaks open both the supply and the demand side.”

READ: ​​Low Risk, High Reward: Closing the Skills Gap Through Apprenticeships

What Causes the Paper Ceiling? 

Degree inflation is the rising demand for a four-year college degree for jobs that previously did not require one. Degree inflation is driven by two factors: the evolution of middle-skill jobs (jobs that require employees to have more than a high school diploma but less than a college degree) and employers’ misperceptions of the economics of investing in quality talent at the non-graduate level. Too many employers believe that a bachelor’s degree is the only way to build job-relevant skills. 

“Let us stop talking about this population in terms of what they don’t have and start talking about this population in terms of the skills they do have,” says Villota. 

Biased algorithms can also contribute to the paper ceiling.

Most large companies use automated applicant tracking systems to screen resumes, which filter out about half of all applications. As AI takes over the resume screening process, employers risk rejecting applicants with relevant work experience or credentials other than college degrees.  

“Algorithms are biased in part because they’re based on historical data and that historical data excluded STARs or they have other correlations that result in implicit bias,” says Villota. 

He says implicit bias is also present in professional networks, where networking gaps lead people to look for talent within their networks. 

“We all know that referrals are a common way to find a job,” says Villota. “If you’re inside a network because you have a bachelor’s degree, you’re on the other side of the paper ceiling and advantaged with those professional networks. If you’re on the outside, you’re disadvantaged.”

READ: Workplace Fairness Trends to Watch in 2023

Consequences of the Paper Ceiling 

The paper ceiling has severely impacted STARs’ economic mobility. 

“It now takes STARs, on average, 30 years to catch up to the starting wage of a college graduate,” says Villota. “There’s something not right in that math, that four years of college education equates to 30 years of work experience. That can’t possibly be right.”

Millions of STARs have developed the skills to earn more income. But when analyzing nearly 900 U.S. occupations, Opportunity@Work found that the skills required for low-wage jobs often overlap with those needed for higher-wage jobs. 

“The idea of economic exclusion, because if you don’t have a bachelor’s degree, it relates to poverty,” says Villota. “It relates to issues of education and equity in education. It relates to gender rights because women are disproportionately affected. If we can solve this issue and tear the paper ceiling, we can hopefully not only advance economic mobility, but we can improve all these other circumstances.”

The result of the paper ceiling is a cycle of rejection for STARs.

“They didn’t get the job they wanted or got a suboptimal job,” says Lee. “There may even have been some discrimination along the way, you can argue. STARs have lots of doubt and we want to help them work through their self-doubt.”

READ: Pay Transparency Laws Are Crucial for Women of Color – Here’s Why

Bringing Awareness to the Paper Ceiling 

Villota says when companies employ STARs, it should not be viewed as just a diversity issue. 

“Companies need to look at this not just as a DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) solution, but as a talent strategy solution,” he says. By doing that, you will advance your DEIB efforts, but you also advance your broader talent goals.”

Lee says his dream would be for every Fortune 1000 company to pledge to tear down the paper ceiling. 

“Not a stupid pledge, but a real pledge that we are going to hire 100 STARs in the next year or something like that,” he says. “100 times 1000 is a big number, just to start with.”

Joining the companies would be state governments and the top 100 cities across America vowing to get rid of college degree requirements. Lee says he also dreams of the Tear the Paper Ceiling Campaign capturing the American Zeitgeist. 

“I don’t know how to define that,” he says. “It’s just a feeling. Part of it is social media. Part of it is influencers. If Kim Kardashian posted something about Tear the Paper Ceiling, this thing would blow up. That’s the way the world works.”

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