Paper Ceiling Meaning

In September 2022, common sense will hopefully prevail. A national advertising campaign will challenge the hiring status quo by championing skills-based hiring. Opportunity@Work wants to convince employers to get rid of unnecessary bachelor’s degree requirement for hiring—a ‘paper ceiling’ that holds back half the U.S. workforce.

75% of new jobs require a bachelor’s degree, but only 40% of workers have one. Instead, these professionals develop valuable skills through community college courses, military service, on-the-job learning, or certificate programs. Associations with skills-conferring certificate programs should join Opportunity@Work’s movement and leverage their influence on industry employers.

The problems arising with the college path

It wasn’t always like this. The college degree wasn’t always the only path to upward economic mobility. Back in the day, many people went to vocational high schools and entered apprenticeships that led to fulfilling careers providing middle class wages.

But over the past few decades, the prevailing mindset changed to “everyone deserves to and should go to college.” But many people can’t commit to a four-year degree program. For one, they can’t afford it. The cost of going to college has risen at nearly five times the rate of inflation over the last 50 years. A middle-class kid in the 1970s or ‘80s could manage the cost of tuition, room, and board through savings, part-time work, and student loans. No more.

There’s also the value question. You’ve most likely read articles about the work readiness of college graduates. Are they learning the skills needed for 21st century careers? A degree that prepares you for a specific career—law, medicine, nursing, engineering, etc.—is a worthy investment, and a liberal arts degree is a wonderful foundation and spark for lifelong learning. But when you combine the cost of a college education with the burden of student loan debt, you have to wonder if it’s worth it for many people.

Another development clouds the prospects of college graduates. It turns out fewer of them have real work experience than in the past. “Today’s 18- to 25-year-olds are the least working generation in U.S. history.” They’re not developing the soft skills required to make a successful entry into the professional workplace.

paper ceiling caused by hiring requirements for a bachelor

Paper ceiling barriers

Opportunity@Work describes how the paper ceiling impedes the upward progress of skilled individuals.

• Job postings require a bachelor’s degree, yet, in many of these positions, the skills to do the job well actually matter more.

• Biased screening algorithms exclude the non-degreed by default. We’ve written about this software bias in our post about SHRM’s report on alternative credentials.

• Employment decision-makers give preferential treatment to people from their alumni or other insider network.

• Employers are biased by stereotypes and misperceptions about non-degreed professionals.

• People indulge in lazy hiring practices, making “institutional and individual choices, [and] choosing convenient shortcuts over consideration of skills.”

The paper ceiling has a devastating impact on the 70+ million workers Skilled Through Alternative Routes, called STARs. It denies them access to upward economic mobility and limits their earning potential. “It takes STARs more than 30 years of work experience to earn what a college graduate earns at the beginning of their career.”

Employers perhaps don’t realize the paper ceiling’s impact on their companies: they lose access to a large pool of skilled and diverse talent. “Screening for bachelor’s degrees excludes nearly 80% of Latino workers, almost 70% of African Americans and more than 70% of rural Americans across all backgrounds.” Opportunity@Work says, “STARs reflect our country’s racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity… In fact, the majority of Black, Hispanic, rural, and veteran workers are STARs. Without attention to STARs, corporate diversity efforts simply cannot succeed.” Many employers talk a good DEI game, but they can make a real difference by eliminating unnecessary paper ceilings.

Demolishing the paper ceiling

The advertising campaign funded by Opportunity@Work and its corporate partners—such as IDEO, Google, Accenture, LinkedIn, IBM, and Walmart—will celebrate STARs. Already, a growing number of companies have changed or promised to change their hiring practices. General Motors (GM) dropped the bachelor’s degree requirements from many jobs, focusing instead on a skills-based hiring approach. The results? Nearly 50% of the 500 group leaders whom GM hired this year are from underrepresented categories.

IBM’s New Collar jobs initiative removed degree barriers by opening up thousands of jobs based on skills. The state of Maryland no longer requires a bachelor’s degree for nearly half the state’s 38,000 jobs. The Biden administration is urging federal agencies to “rely on job-seekers’ skills—rather than their academic degrees—to fill vacancies.”

paper ceiling - job applicant hoping his skills are enough

How associations can help break paper ceilings

Many associations have always been an alternative route to traditional credentials. If your industry or profession has traditionally and unnecessarily required a bachelor’s degree for entry or mid-level jobs, you can help promote a change in requirements and help member employers become more competitive in the talent marketplace.

Launch a marketing campaign promoting this change in hiring practices. Explain how lifelong learning is required as technology advances and workplaces respond to disruption, like remote work. A college degree only takes someone so far. They need to learn both hard (technical) and soft (human) skills to succeed in today’s workplace.

Be extremely clear about the skills and competencies taught and mastered in your courses and certificate programs. Convene an employer advisory council to guide you on the design of skills-centered programs. Follow the lead of the very successful University of Phoenix. Over 85% of their programs are now skills mapped. The university works with labor market researchers and faculty experts to identify, tag, and map skills in their curriculum that employers seek. Award digital badges as a visual representation of the skills your learners have mastered.

Create and publicize learning pathways that lead people toward their career goals. Design certificate programs that prepare people for entry- and higher-level positions. Work with corporate partners on training programs for entry-level or frontline employees.

Associations have the alternative credentials advantage. You can help industry employers eliminate paper ceilings where appropriate and help skilled professionals advance in their career and economic wellbeing.