How shining a light on STARs is helping break down barriers to economic opportunity

LaShana Lewis
Allan Golston
Blog Post
“I had tried for many years to get jobs in the tech sector, only to be told that I could not get a job because I did not finish the degree. I was never tested on my technical skills or made it past the first interview.”

--LaShana Lewis, Founder and CEO of L.M. Lewis Consulting

LaShana’s story is like that of millions of others. There are more than 70 million workers in the U.S. who have valuable skills but are systematically overlooked by employers because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree.

These workers developed their skills at community colleges, workforce training programs, boot camps, certificate programs, military service, or on the job. They represent a vast and diverse talent pool of workers “skilled through alternative routes”, or STARs, who -- like most people -- aspire to live a full life by finding good jobs, working hard, and pursuing economic opportunities that lead to financial security. These STARs reflect the country’s racial and cultural diversity, comprising 61% of African American workers, 55% of Hispanic workers, 50% of Non-Hispanic White workers, and 61% of veteran workers.

Because employers have historically screened out STARs in the hiring process, the wage gap between STARs and workers with bachelor’s degrees has doubled over the past 40 years. Adjusted for inflation, STARs now earn less on average than they did in 1976, and it takes more than 30 years on the job for STARs to earn the same wage that college graduates earn on day one of their careers.

The research is clear, and we certainly agree with the vast majority of adults that achieving a credential or degree after high school is currently the fastest way to get ahead in today’s economy, and the surest path to economic stability and opportunity. The foundation has spent the past 20 years investing in and working to improve our U.S. education system from pre-kindergarten through postsecondary education for this very reason.

Yet although our higher education system is a critical pathway to higher wages for our workforce, we also know that half of our country’s workers do not have a bachelor’s degree, and many are not in a position to get one. That should not keep those workers from accessing higher-wage job opportunities for which they qualify.

The challenge STARs face is that employers have difficulty recognizing and matching their skills with jobs. This isn’t just a challenge for STARs, but also for our nation, because for the U.S. to be at its strongest, an equitable economic recovery must include everyone. No one can be left behind.

We’re acting on that belief through our Economic Mobility and Opportunity Strategy, where we’re investing in innovative processes, tools, and partners that we believe can help our economic systems perform better, especially for our focus population – those earning less than $27,180 a year individually or $55,500 for a family of four.

One of our partners, Opportunity@Work, is bridging the gap between STARs and employers through a skills-based talent-matching platform called Stellarworx. This online platform centers job skill requirements for every opportunity posted (as opposed to postsecondary degree requirements) and helps employers increase and diversify their talent pool by connecting them directly with STARs.

Our partnership will expand Stellarworx beyond its presence in Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Houston, bringing it to scale as a national skills-based job search platform for STARs and employers seeking skilled workers.

As Opportunity@Work CEO Byron Auguste and LinkedIn CEO Ryan Roslansky said recently in an op-ed on CNN Perspectives, “Recognizing the diverse ways skills are acquired and adopting a skills-first approach to talent will bring greater transparency, efficiency, and equity to the labor market…”

That skills-first approach includes using what Opportunity@Work describes as “screen in” signals for STAR talent on job boards, such as a "STARs wanted” tag on job postings – similar to what’s often seen in job postings for veterans. Opportunity@Work is helping make these “screen in” signals available on job boards, applicant tracking systems, and talent systems that reach millions of workers.

These efforts help expand and diversify talent pools for employers facing rising recruitment and hiring costs as the post-pandemic hiring recovery continues.

To further shine a light on the value of STARs, Opportunity@Work has teamed up with The Ad Council on the “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign to change the narrative about skilled workers and encourage employers to remove the barriers holding back STARs.

That paper ceiling refers to the degree screens, biased algorithms, stereotypes, exclusive professional networks, or personal referrals that have led to companies overlooking STARs and excluding them from hard-to-fill roles in growing fields such as healthcare and information technology. That invisible ceiling has led to STARs missing out on access to 7.4 million higher-wage jobs since 2000.

“Tear the Paper Ceiling” not only aims to raise awareness of the skills and potential STARs have to offer, but it also provides businesses, talent developers, and policymakers with actionable tools and insights to create skills-based, inclusive hiring practices.

Like the Gates Foundation, Opportunity@Work believes in the potential of all people to learn and contribute their talents to our dynamic economy. We envision an economy where everyone can achieve long-term financial security and feel a sense of belonging in their communities. Innovative and inclusive approaches focused on STARs represent a small but important step closer to that vision becoming a reality.