Reach for the STARs: Realizing the Potential of America's Hidden Talent Pool

71 million workers are STARs

There is a vast overlooked talent pool of 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.

STARs developed skills on the job and through alternative routes, such as community college, military service and apprenticeships. We share three key findings about STARs in our report.

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Employers cite a dearth of talent and an inability to fill important roles. Our analysis of O*NET and U.S. Census data suggests there is an overlooked talent pool of skilled workers.

Among the 144 million active workers in the US…
60M adults over the age of 25 have a four-year BA degree

60 million have BA degrees (age 25+)

60M adults over the age of 25 have a four-year BA degree

71 million are STARs (including 3 million Opportunity Youth) - they have at least a high school diploma or equivalent certification and do not have a BA degree

60M adults over the age of 25 have a four-year BA degree

14 million do not have a high school diploma (age 25+)

16M are between 18-24 and have a high school diploma

13M are between 18-24 and have a high school diploma.


Low Wage Does Not Mean Low Skill

Current job

Sales Representative

Job with higher wage and similar skills

Advertising Sales Agent

Credentialed Training Opens Pathways to Jobs through Flexible Models

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 Learn Valuable Skills on the Job

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.

Community Colleges Provide Pathways to Middle- and High-Wage Roles

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 Create Educational Opportunities through Worker Training and Benefits

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.

Accelerating Training Benefits Skilled Workers like Veterans

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 Training and Work Experience

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.


The Overlooked Talent Pool is Vast and Diverse

71 Million STARs represent the full diversity of the workforce.

STARs are a significant share of all regions, races, ethnicities, genders and generations across the United States. The STARs population also includes people in several workforce segments that HR and talent development leaders have begun to proactively incorporate into talent pipelines:

  • Military veterans
  • Opportunity Youth
  • Returning citizens
  • Returning caregivers
  • Workers in rural communities
  • Workers in roles vulnerable to automation
STARs location

STARs are located in all regions across the country, including both urban and rural areas.

STARs gender

The STARs population has a similar gender distribution as the active population of workers in the U.S.

STARs population

62% of African Americans, 55% of Hispanics, and50% of Non-Hispanic Whites are STARs.


STARs have different trajectories to increase wages

Shift to skills-based hiring and talent development practices and encourage others to do the same. You can:

  • Break down barriers for STARs. End four-year degree requirements that prevent your company from seeing STARs.
  • Source STARs talent. Identify alternative routes to find the STARs talent you need.
  • Invest in your own STARs. Train and ensure upward career pathways for STARs in your company.

Large companies and industry networks can shape the broader workforce ecosystem to scale up opportunities for STARs. You can:

  • Engage ecosystems and supplier networks to hire and develop STARs. Companies can encourage smaller businesses in their supply chain to hire STARs.
  • Develop and enhance products and services for STARs. Job search, applicant tracking and talent management systems can be improved to ensure access and visibility for STARs.
  • Inform state and national policy. Policymakers and companies can shape a collective agenda to support STARs across their lifetime.

Align efforts around STARs to multiply collective impact. You can:

  • Adopt the STARs terminology and narrative to support the shift in corporate practices and to attract the resources to this movement.
  • Define a collective, STARs-focused call to action that establishes specific targets for wage gain and/or number of jobs opened to STARS in the coming decade.

Drive a collective research agenda to inform more effective corporate practice and public policies for STARs. You can:

  • Engage public statistical agencies to expand and standardize critical data on the STARs population.
  • Pursue cross-sector research collaborations to access additional data sets and answer key questions about STARs.

Help change perceptions about workers without bachelor’s degrees by highlighting the skills over degrees. You can:

  • Speak up about success stories and challenges so that others can hear about STARs’ experiences and potential.

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