Majority of U.S. Workforce Needs 30 Years On-the-Job to Earn a College Graduate's Starting Wages

New insights reveal degree discrimination’s negative impact on employers and the 70+ million workers Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs)

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2022 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Exclusionary hiring practices and an overreliance on college degrees have led to downward mobility for the largest subset of workers in the U.S. over the last 20 years, according to research released today from social enterprise Opportunity@Work

The report, Rise with the STARs: Building a Stronger Labor Market for STARs, Communities, and Employers, finds that workers Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs) like community college, military service, training programs, skills bootcamps, and learning on the job — rather than a bachelor’s degree – face a stark opportunity gap in today’s labor market. Median wages for STARs do not equal the starting salaries of college graduates until 30 years after a STAR has entered the workforce. And, over the last 20 years, STARs were displaced from 7.4 million middle- and high-wage jobs.

“Despite having the skills for higher-wage work, STARs have often been needlessly screened out by employers carelessly pursuing ‘hiring efficiency.’  It’s been a lose-lose bargain for both employers and the 60% of U.S. workers who do not have a bachelor’s degree,” said Byron Auguste, CEO of Opportunity@Work. “Amid the acute impact of the Great Resignation, smart employers can build a more resilient, diverse, and skilled talent base and unblock clogged systems of opportunity in their communities where they do business.”

  • Released today: The New York Times’ Steve Lohr features Rise with the STARs research in his latest piece!

Rise with the STARs underscores the critical roles employers, workforce and education organizations, researchers, and policymakers can play in renewing talent pipelines in the face of today’s “skills gap.” By analyzing the 292 Gateway and Destination jobs that have long offered opportunity for advancement to STARs, Opportunity@Work identified 30 job roles that could reverse the downward trend facing STARs. By intentionally hiring STARs into those roles – which include computer support specialist, registered nurses, human resource managers, and sales representatives – and providing training and opportunities for career advancement, employers can help provide new pathways for STARs. The report’s “STAR Mobility Index” captures the variation in economic opportunity for STARs across the largest 50 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs). 

“Nearly half of the 7.4 million jobs lost to STARs since the turn of the century were in 30 occupations. STARs currently comprise at least 20% of workers in each of these occupations, suggesting that by sourcing STARs for these jobs, employers can make deliberate choices to reverse the decline in economic mobility for STARs while strengthening their talent pipelines,” said Papia Debroy, Senior Vice President of Insights at Opportunity@Work. “Continued screening out of this valuable talent will exacerbate their hiring needs and ultimately hurt their bottom line.” 

Rise with the STARs builds on Opportunity@Work’s body of work about workers without a bachelor’s degree, which includes two landmark reports – Reach for the STARs and Navigating with the STARs – as well as research published in the National Bureau of Economic Research – Searching for STARs: Work Experience as a Job Market Signal for Workers without Bachelor's Degrees and Skills, Degrees and Labor Market Inequality

“Many employers' practices appear to assume that having no college degree means you don’t have skills, and these data refute that narrative,”  said Erica L. Groshen, Senior Economic Advisor at Cornell U-ILR, former Bureau of Labor Statistics Commissioner, and Chair of the STARs Insights Advisory Panel. “The term STARs has ‘skills’ in the name for a reason – so we can change our understanding of a talent category that is too often defined only by the degree that workers don't have, as opposed to the skills and talent they do possess.”

  • Join Opportunity@Work,, General Motors, the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, and more for a LinkedIn Live virtual event at 1 p.m. ET, Monday, January 31st. RSVP today!

Biases against STARs – which include erroneously identifying them as low-skill – has also had a negative impact on diversity in the workforce, as 61% of Black workers, 55% of Hispanic workers, and 66% of rural workers of all races are STARs. And as employers in today’s labor market seek to diversify, “no DEIB effort will be successful without attention to STARs,” according to Rise with the STARs.

Summary of key findings from Rise with the STARs:

  • It takes 30 years of work experience for a STAR to catch up to the wage a bachelor’s degree holder earns on day one of their career.
  • STARs have been excluded from 7.4 middle- and high-wage jobs since 2000.
  • From 2000-2019, STARs’ employment share in the vital Gateway and Destination jobs fell from 54% to 46%; just 30 occupations accounted for nearly half of the total loss. 
  • Removing barriers within these “30 Roles to Turn the Tide” are key to reversing the downward trend and correcting the market failure.
  • With the newly-created “STAR Mobility Index,” variations in STARs economic mobility can now be measured in the largest 50 MSAs by understanding three key variables – economic mobility, economic equity, and economic security – associated with their economic well-being: 
    • The Denver, Rochester, N.Y., and Virginia Beach, Va. MSAs rank as the top three performing regions for STAR economic mobility -  which underscore patterns in workforce investment and collaboration in these regions.
    • Mega metros like the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York were not high on the index.
  • A brand new quantitative survey provides evidence that managers with degrees overestimate the proportion of the workforce who hold degrees; those misperceptions may damage STARs hiring, advancement, and belonging in the workplace.

“As someone with some college experience, and years of training on the job, I thought I’d be well-positioned to access the career pathway work I wanted and deserved. But unfortunately, once I entered the labor market I realized that wasn’t the case,” said Courtney McGowan, a client services manager profiled in Rise with the STARs. “Thankfully through my years of training and learnings on-the-job, I was able to build strong IT skills that have allowed me to move up in my career. I will always look to find new ways to grow my technical skill set, but I hope there comes a time when I’m recognized and hired for what I can do, not what employers think I lack.” 


About Opportunity@Work
Opportunity@Work is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to increase access to middle-wage jobs for the 70+ million U.S. workers who lack bachelor’s degrees but are Skilled Through Alternative Routes (STARs). Opportunity@Work engages with corporate, philanthropic, and workforce partners to directly address the barriers that STARs face, recognize STARs talent and remove bachelor's degree screens.  Learn more at


Rise with the STARs From the Report: It Takes a STAR 30 Years to Reach the Starting Wage of a College Graduate

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