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Activating Pathways for Mobility: A Q&A with Opportunity@Work

Archana Pyati February 22, 2022

WorkRise grantee Opportunity@Work is building a movement to dismantle structural inequities in the labor market that prevent workers—particularly people of color—from accessing higher-wage jobs and opportunities for career advancement. Through rigorous research and data analysis, narrative change, and innovative partnerships, Opportunity@Work is redefining how we think about workers without four-year degrees and the opportunities in the labor market that wouldavailable to them if structural barriers such as degree requirements were eliminated. WorkRise has supported Opportunity@Work’s research program focused on labor market mobility for STARs, or workers “skilled through alternative routes” other than four-year degrees.


WorkRise recently spoke with Papia Debroy and Peter Q. Blair, coprincipal investigators of the project, about their research. Debroy is senior vice president of insights at Opportunity@Work, and Blair codirects Harvard University’s Project on Workforce and is an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

WorkRise: You describe workers without a BA or BS degree—who, in fact, are the majority of the US labor force—as STARs, or “skilled through alternative routes.” They include workers who have on-the-job training and experience gained through the military, caregiving, or volunteer service. Walk us through how you were able to establish that 30 million STARs already have the skills to do high-wage work but remain stuck in low- and middle-wage jobs?

Papia Debroy and Peter Blair: STARs currently need, on average, 30 years of work experience to earn what a BA/BS worker earns on the first day of their career. Yet, all workers develop and demonstrate skills on the job. Our methodology builds on that assumption and asks the question: Once you have the skills required of a specific occupation, what other jobs could a worker transition to next?

Using three publicly available datasets, primarily the 2021 Annual Social and Economic Supplement of the Current Population Survey, we identify higher-paying occupations that workers could move into if their on-the-job skills were best leveraged. Using each worker’s current occupation as a starting point, we identify higher-paying jobs to which workers have transitioned that require similar skills to the ones the worker uses in his or her current job. This method is fundamentally built on how the labor market currently operates but imagines a world in which employers more readily tap into the talent that STARs already have. We find that more than 30 million STARs are positioned to do higher-wage work today. For a more detailed explanation of our methodology, we’d encourage you to look at the appendix of our recent report, Rise with the STARs.

WorkRise: What are some of the most common skill similarities or overlaps between high-wage and lower-wage jobs you found? Are degree requirements the main barrier for STARs seeking access to higher-wage jobs?

PD and PB: Workers build valuable skills through their on-the-job experience and in fact do frequently leverage those skills to transition to higher-wage jobs. Take the example of an administrative assistant, a role which requires proficiency in active listening, coordination, and service orientation. These same skills are needed in higher-wage roles, like human resource specialist. As STARs take on these roles, they strengthen and develop new skills collaborating with coworkers, assessing customers’ problems, and actively addressing daily challenges to fulfill their job responsibilities. Our job market trains critical thinkers, problem solvers, and strong communicators. When employers screen for degrees, they overlook all this practical experience.

WorkRise:You also compare the job transitions and trajectories of workers with and without four-year degrees. In a recent working paper, you show how workers with BA/BS degrees have more success getting hired into higher-wage jobs, even if they don’t have the skills to do that job. What does this reveal about the structural biases built into hiring processes?

PD and PB: When employers include four-year degree requirements on job postings, they simultaneously cut themselves off from a valuable talent pool and STARs from valuable job opportunities. This has an especially disparate impact on the more than 60 percent of Black workers, almost 80 percent of Hispanic workers, and more than 70 percent of rural workers in the US who are considered STARs. It’s also important to recognize the cumulative effects that degree requirements have on STARs’ lifetime earnings and the talent pipeline from which employers continuously find workers. Higher-paying jobs offer STARs the immediate benefit of higher wages, but they’re also career accelerators: they give workers access to on-the-job training and experience that allow them to move further up the economic ladder. Further, supporting the mobility of workers out of lower-wage jobs ensures there is a continuous pool of talent for middle- and high-wage occupations.

"Higher-paying jobs offer STARs the immediate benefit of higher wages, but they’re also career accelerators: they give workers access to on-the-job training and experience that allow them to move further up the economic ladder."

WorkRise:In your recent Rise with the STARs report, you analyze the wage and mobility potential of specific jobs, noting there are 30 key occupations that not only offer better wages but also create pathways for continued career and wage growth. What do we know about these gateway and destination occupations?

PD and PB: Gateway occupations are jobs that facilitate a pathway to higher-wage work because they are accessible from many entry-level positions, and they open doors to multiple higher-wage destination jobs. The customer service representative role is a good example of a gateway job. It is accessible from cashiers, receptionists, and retail sales jobs, and workers frequently move on from customer service to various manager roles. There are hundreds of other pathways like this one that are not considered traditional career ladders but have historically offered opportunities for mobility. Our report shows that over the past two decades, STARs have seen their representation decline in these critical occupations, losing access to the very roles that offered them mobility.

WorkRise:The reckoning over racial inequality in all aspects of American life—including the labor market—that began after George Floyd’s murder continues to this day with a new focus from government and the private sector on closing opportunity gaps between white people and people of color. Your research notes that among Black workers in the labor market, more than 60 percent are STARs. How do you see the movement to recognize and hire STARs in the broader movement for racial equity and justice?

PD and PB: Employers simply cannot diversify their workforces if they overlook Black STARs, [who] account for more than 65 percent of the Black workforce in this country. Further, our skills analysis shows that half of Black STARs have the skills for higher-wage work, while half are in jobs that do not offer opportunities for advancement. Structural inequities require more deliberation by employers, workforce organizations, and educators in the coming years to ensure that pathways to higher wages are unblocked. This will require that we systematically value the learning Black STARs gain on the job and ensure there are opportunities to translate those learnings to earnings in higher-wage positions.

WorkRise:Employers have a clear role to play in expanding opportunities for STARs, and there are clear actions they can take that you outline in Rise with the STARs. Do you see evidence that employers are beginning to look past credentials and hire for skills? Do you have any success stories from your work with employers on whether their views on talent and hiring are evolving and becoming more inclusive?

PD and PB: Employers are absolutely interested in this moment in making their talent pipelines more inclusive. Recent data from Burning Glass Technologies shows that employers have been moving away from degree requirements over the past few years. But there is still considerable work to be done to ensure that the removal of degree requirements translates to the actual hiring, development, and promotion of STARs across occupations and industries.

Learn more about Opportunity@Work’s research on STARs:

Rise with the STARs

Skills, Degrees, and Labor Market Inequality

Searching for STARs: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers without Bachelor’s Degrees