Reach for the STARs: Realizing the Potential of America’s Hidden Talent Pool
There is a vast overlooked talent pool of 70+ million workers who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs). These are workers who have a high school diploma or equivalent and do not have a four-year college degree but do have the skills to perform higher-wage work today.
You’re overlooking 70+ Million STARs
It is a common assumption that fewer or lower-level skills are required in lower-wage jobs than in higher-wage occupations. However, by studying STARs and the Bureau of Labor Statistics O*NET database, we found that assumption to be untrue. When we compared the skills STARs use in their current roles to the skills needed for higher-wage positions, we found enormous overlap.
Skills Similarities between Two Jobs
This figure illustrates the skill similarity between two jobs that pay different wages. The overlap of skills between the low-wage job on the left (paying less than $37,500) and the middle-wage job on the right (paying between $37,500-$77,000) is significant. These two jobs are not the only such pairing. We found at least one possible skills-based transition from their current jobs to a higher-wage job for every one of the 70+ million STARs.
The most commonly recognized pathway to high-wage work is a four-year college degree. This pathway is an important one for millions of workers. However, it is not the only route for workers to build critical skills. Our analysis focuses on on-the-job learning, or work experience, as an alternative route to build valuable skills. And there are many others. Here are a few examples of alternative routes:
Many STARs share that they lack the time and resources to invest in training and professional development. Merit America offers a flexible training and credentialing model tailored to advance careers in high-demand fields like information technology, advanced manufacturing and health care. The program combines online learning with in-person support to facilitate scheduling, as well as offering a small stipend to offset some of the costs of participation. Flexible training and credentialing programs like Merit America are helpful to STARs who are employed in full-time jobs and need a credential or additional skill to transition to higher-wage work.
Workers acquire valuable and relevant skills through work experience and on-the-job learning. Workers routinely cite on-the-job learning as critical for their performance, while team managers look for work experience when recruiting for new roles because it signals that the worker brings knowledge, skills and abilities to accomplish a given set of tasks.
With more than 5 million students enrolling annually nationwide, community college is an important route pursued by STARs. Our data shows that STARs in higher-wage positions are more likely to have an associate degree or have attended some college. An analysis of community college student pathways by Chegg, the education technology company, identified the several middle- and high-wage roles most commonly held by community college graduates. These tended to be in fields with defined career paths and certifications (registered nurse, dental hygienist), expertise in specific tools and processes (CAD designer, graphic design, IT help desk) or well developed roles and paths (law enforcement, paralegal).
Employers can play a critical role in a worker’s professional journey through their talent development efforts. Walmart is one employer exploring ways of supporting workers to help them identify and develop their skills through the Live Better U initiative. Partnering with Guild Education, Walmart gives employees access to high school, college and credential based education.
More than 10 million veterans are active in today’s workforce. 56% of this population are STARs. Research shows the valuable skills veterans learn in the military including technical skills, leadership, communication and decision making. Workshops for Warriors builds from this important skill foundation and trains for the additional skills that employers need. Based in San Diego, a market with a projection for several million advanced manufacturing jobs, the program deploys a 16-week training module to provide industry-recognized credentials in welding and machining. The program accelerates veterans’ transition to jobs that increase their earning potential and maximize their contribution to the workforce.
Apprenticeships provide quality training and work experience that allow workers to learn and earn as they build valuable workplace-specific skills. Estimates suggest that roughly a million people are participating in some type of program in the U.S. this year and the Department of Labor reports steady growth in the number of apprentices across a range of industries nationwide. Most apprenticeships are in skilled trades such as plumbing and carpentry, but more than 700 programs created in the past two years were in newer fields for apprenticeships, such as financial services, information technology and health care. Companies such as IBM and consortiums such as the Chicago Apprenticeship Network and Consumer Technology Association Apprenticeship Coalition are pioneering this approach in new industries. Apprenticeship programs are remarkably effective as pathways to permanent employment; the Department of Labor reports that nine in ten apprentices are employed upon completion of their apprenticeship.
STARs are located in all regions across the country, including both urban and rural areas.
The STARs population has a similar gender distribution as the active population of workers in the U.S.
62% of African Americans, 55% of Hispanics, and 50% of Non-Hispanic Whites are STARs.
Our analysis shows meaningfully different trajectories for STARs to earn higher wages.
We segmented the STARs population into three groups based on their skills-readiness for higher-wage work. Each segment needs different types of investment and support to transition to higher-paying work, but all have the skills to perform a different role for at least 10% more in wages using the skills they have in their current role. Click on the tabs below to discover more on each segment.
5 million Shining STARs are in high-wage roles today — paying more than $77,000. They are proof that a bachelor’s degree is not the only route to gain skills for higher wages.
San Francisco, California
Tino Lei’a graduated high school but did not finish community college as he struggled to focus on his studies while making ends meet in low-wage roles. A cousin directed him to Year Up, a program that helps young adults find meaningful careers by providing soft-skills training and connecting them with internships in leading firms. Tino successfully completed the training, and because he had an affinity towards video games and computers, began an internship at Workday in the QA department. There he learned the technical skills needed for the role, and is now currently serving as a senior associate quality assurance engineer.
Quality Assurance, Systems Analysis, Critical Thinking, Reading Comprehension, Judgement and Decision Making, Active Listening
Shining STARs are located throughout the U.S.
Shining STARs are most likely to be found in the Midwest states. They make up the smallest proportions of the active working population in a few states on the East Coast.
30 million Rising STARs have skills today to transition to roles that pay at least 50% more. Twenty million of Rising STARs are currently in low-wage roles and 10 million are in middle-wage roles, but all have the potential skills to realize transformative wage gain in their local markets. We must improve their access to higher-wage jobs, and companies must build new sourcing pipelines to include these STARs.
CNC Machinist, Safety Team Lead
Zach Pierobello joined the Marine Corps after high school, specializing in signals intelligence, but worried his skills wouldn’t translate to civilian work outside of the intelligence or security fields. Near the end of his service, he enrolled in training with Workshops for Warriors, an organization that helps servicemen and women train for jobs, get certifications, prepare for interviews and find careers in advanced manufacturing. With the technical training he received, he was hired as a Roto CAM machinist. Once in that role, he was able to leverage his skills and experience to earn a highly-coveted promotion to safety team leader.
CAD Programming, Reading Comprehension, Operations and Control, Operations Monitoring, Critical Thinking
Rising STARs are located throughout the U.S.
36 million Forming STARs do not yet have the skills for significantly higher-wage work. Fourteen million Forming STARs currently work in low-wage roles such as in-home health assistance and food service, while 19 million work in middle-wage roles such as industrial production or carpentry. They are especially susceptible to the impact of automation and require additional support. We must invest in and strengthen alternative routes for these STARs.
Milena Perryman began as a clerical worker, but without a degree, she ran into roadblocks to promotions and pay raises. Rather than be stuck in an unfulfilling job, she jumped around to different roles, including HR administration and accounting, looking for ways to diversify her resume and learn new skills. She soon learned how to market herself to small businesses that were looking for an employee with skills in process management and a keen attention to detail. She landed a job as an office administrator.
Mathematics, Active Listening, Reading Comprehension, Critical Thinking, Speaking
While there are promising efforts to touch the STARs population, we, the workforce development ecosystem, need to learn faster and expand our focus from several thousand workers to tens of millions in the coming years. Corporate leaders, workforce development leaders, the analyst community and STARs all have a role to play.
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