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Written Testimony of Papia Debroy, Opportunity@Work As Prepared for Delivery Before the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce “Competencies Over Degrees: Transitioning to a Skills-Based Economy,” June 22, 2023

Opportunity@Work - Papia Debroy
Article Date
June 22, 2023


Chairwoman Foxx, Ranking Member Scott, and distinguished Members of the Committee,
thank you for the opportunity to testify before you today. It’s an honor to be here to discuss
the American workforce. By way of introduction, my name is Papia Debroy, and I lead the
research and data analytics teams at the nonprofit social enterprise Opportunity@Work.
With my testimony today, I want to accomplish three tasks: First, I want to introduce you to
the 70+ million workers in the United States who are Skilled Through Alternative Routes - or
STARs. These workers do not have a bachelor’s degree, do have a high school diploma and
have valuable skills. In fact, our analyses show there are 30 million STARs who have skills to
make transitions to significantly higher wages today, if given the opportunity and access.
Second, I want to speak about the barriers they face, barriers which include degree screens,
misperceptions, and access to professional networks. These barriers amount to a “paper
ceiling” which has resulted in a stunning inequality: it takes the median STAR 30 years of
work to earn the starting wages of a worker with a bachelor’s degree. Last, employers and
policymakers are positioned to make a significant difference in the trajectory of STARs in
the coming generation through targeted investments in our federal data infrastructure,
through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, and by supporting investments in
apprenticeships, community colleges and other pathways.

STARs are a vast, overlooked, skilled & diverse pool of workers who comprise half
the workforce

STARs make up more than half the 140+ million workers in the labor market. STARs gain skills
through many different pathways including community college, military service, partial
college, training programs, entrepreneurship, and most commonly, by learning on the job.

STARs make up a significant portion of every region’s workforce in the country. In Ranking
Member Scott's Commonwealth of Virginia, STARs are 48% percent of the workforce; in
Committee Chairwoman Foxx’s state of North Carolina, STARs are 54% percent of the
workforce. In both states, they contribute to the economy in jobs ranging from sales
representatives to software developers to registered nurses.2

When a job requires a degree, employers automatically screen out 80% of Hispanic workers,
more than 70% of African-Americans, 75% of rural Americans, and nearly 70% of veterans.3
While bachelor’s degree programs have been, and always will be, a critical path to higher
wages in our country, tens of millions of STARs are also gaining valuable skills for higher wage
jobs, and they cannot and should not be locked out of opportunity. Learning - wherever it
happens - must translate to earning for the American workforce.

STARs face barriers to mobility in today’s labor market

STARs experience the labor market differently from workers with a bachelor’s degree. When
a STAR entered the workforce in 1989 at the age of 25, they were earning less than the
worker with a bachelor’s degree. That has historically been the case. In this generation
though, STARs never caught up. Thirty years into their career, at the age of 55, STARs just
start to earn what the bachelor’s degree worker was earning at the beginning of their career
at age 25.4 We are essentially equating a four year degree with 30 years of work experience.
That is a stunning inequality that is new to this generation of workers.

Analyses by our organization, Opportunity@Work, show that more than 30 million STARs
have the skills to do significantly higher-wage work, but systemic barriers prevent them
from moving ahead. Employers’ increasing use of degree screens—which have been
adopted mostly in a piecemeal fashion rather than by grand design—is based on two false
assumptions: First, that low-wage equals low-skill, and second, that a bachelor’s degree is
the only gateway to relevant skills. As a result, 70% of new jobs in the past decade are ones
in which employers frequently require a bachelor’s degree. But this practice—aimed mainly
to manage the surge in digital applications—has severe adverse effects on the majority of
the workforce that does not have a bachelor’s degree. It compounds other barriers related
to the mobility of some subgroups (such as Black STARs), manager beliefs and biases,
professional networks, and a lack of access to transportation, child care, and other key

These barriers are what we term “the paper ceiling” and result in a lack of access to
high-wage careers that affect all American workers, but disproportionately limit historically
marginalized groups. This has become one of the greatest equity issues of our generation.
We have an opportunity in front of us to tear the paper ceiling. How might we do this?

There are skills-based pathways for STARs in our labor market, but STARs have
systematically lost access to them

Our research shows that a journey to equity begins with understanding that all work
requires skills - and thus all workers have skills. For example, if you’re showing up to work
every day as a retail worker, our Department of Labor suggests you’re bringing 35 skills to
your job: persuasion, active listening and speaking skills amongst them. What we at
Opportunity@Work have analyzed is how those skills position these workers for lots of other
high-paying jobs in the US labor market: we’ve studied 130 million job transitions made by
workers in the past 10 years to understand when, and how, STARs translate their skills to
higher wages. What we find is that STARs do leverage those skills to make transitions to
higher wage jobs: for instance, retail workers frequently use those skills to transition to sales
representatives. In the last five years, almost 100,000 STARs have achieved skills-based
economic mobility by moving from retail workers to sales representatives.6

When STARs make an upwardly mobile transition to higher wages, they most commonly do
so to a subset of jobs in our labor market - almost 300 jobs we term gateway and
destination jobs. Unfortunately, the pathways into these jobs are precisely the ones that
have been increasingly blocked for STARs. In fact, STARs lost access to almost 7.5 million
gateway and destination job opportunities in the past two decades. The kinds of jobs
they’re being locked out of include roles such as secretaries, human resource assistants,
customer service representatives, computer support specialists, medical diagnostic
technicians, and more.

These are historically the jobs that have opened the door to upward mobility to American
families. When STARs are blocked from these jobs, they are also blocked from the next,
higher-paying job on an upward career pathway. Further, we find that STARs of color face
higher barriers to these critical gateway and destination jobs - they don’t access the same
upwardly mobile transitions, and when they do, they earn less than their white counterparts.
A similar story is true for female STARs: when they get the job, they earn less than their male

Despite the myriad of barriers STARs face, STARs are represented in almost every
occupation in the U.S. labor market.8 They represent millions of proof points that workers
can gain skills through alternative routes to be successful in middle- and high-wage work.
This analysis suggests we need to re-open these jobs and pathways for STARs. And, we
must position STARs for the tens of thousands of new jobs that will be added to our labor
market in the coming years.

Charting a path forward for STARs requires employers to implement skills-based hiring

We are frequently asked where communities should start if they want to turn the tide for
STARs? Specifically, what is the role of employers?

First, let’s be clear that the private sector is not the only employer of focus. The public
sector plays a critical role, as federal, state, and local government actors are some of the
largest employers in every state across the country. Yet, the government is requiring
degrees for its roles more often than the private sector, and state and local government
roles require degrees more often (60%) than federal (49%) or private sector (36%)

I want to recognize how quickly the public sector has acted upon realizing this error.
Thirteen states have removed degree requirements for state roles in the past 12 months.
Many leaders realize that these actions are low-cost ways to open state hiring processes to
more applicants and improve economic mobility for qualified workers who have been largely
excluded from state hiring systems. This sends a message to everyone in a state – including
other employers – that if a worker has the skills to do a job, they should have access to the
job and the potential career advancement it offers.

Second, employers must be incentivized to shift to skills-based hiring. Whereas traditional
hiring practices use education, previous employers, years of experience, and job titles as
indicators of a job candidate’s capabilities, skills-based hiring focuses intentionally on the
specific skills needed to do the job. This sounds straightforward, but it requires a shift in
culture and practice.

The implementation of skills-based hiring requires specific, targeted adjustments to
standard hiring practices, from how you write your position descriptions to how you screen,
interview, and assess candidates. This includes: (a) rewriting job descriptions to replace
degree requirements withskills requirements, (b) broadening sourcing and recruitment
strategies to attract new and different candidates, (c) rethinking interview protocols to
assess candidates’ skills rather than their “fit” , and (d) and looking internally to create more
upward mobility opportunities for the STARs you currently employ.

More broadly, employers must recognize that skills, not credentials and certainly not social
capital, are the currency of the labor market. Bringing that clarity to talent management
practices – from hiring, to training, performance management, and promotion – is the first
step toward a more efficient and effective labor market. Indeed, the return on these
investments in skills-based hiring extends far beyond the hiring process. With larger, more
diverse pools of applicants and more effective candidate assessment, employers can
expect to see an increase in the quality of new hires as well as improvements in
productivity, employee engagement, and retention.

In addition to the labor market and employer benefits, skills-based hiring enables us to reset
the narrative that undervalues the skills and capabilities of over half of the workforce. Our
organization, Opportunity@Work, launched a public awareness campaign in partnership with
the Ad Council in the Fall. The campaign’s market research shows that the term “STARs” with
its asset-based premise has been a powerful antidote to the deficit-based workforce
terminology so often used to describe this talented group of workers. This important
campaign has brought together more than 50 national partners, and calls on employers to
Tear the Paper Ceiling for STARs: Remove degree requirements, rethink our perceptions of
who is skilled, and see STARs as solutions to the next generation of American workforce
challenges. You can learn more at

Policymakers can make investments in data infrastructure, WIOA and pathways
such as apprenticeships to shift the trajectory for STARs

While employers are an important actor in shifting the tide for STARs, policymakers are
critical. Our policy actions can reshape opportunities for this population for the coming
generation in significant and impactful ways. I focus on three areas of impact:

First, we need a 21st century federal workforce data infrastructure. For labor market policies
to be sustainable, they must be based on hard evidence to allow effective and targeted
interventions that enable the labor market to operate more efficiently and equitably. All
labor market participants need trustworthy, granular, timely, and accurate data on
occupations, vacancies, unemployment, wages and skill needs longitudinally, and across

Our current official labor market data are trustworthy but have long lags and/or provide
insufficient skill, occupational and geographic detail to guide many decisions well. We could
do much better by enhancing, combining, and analyzing data currently collected by the
states for administering the Unemployment Insurance (UI) program. The Bureau of Labor
Statistics (BLS) already collects employer-level UI data for the Quarterly Census of
Employment and Wages. BLS and over 20 states have an effort underway to expand this
capacity for processing worker-level records under the Wage Records Program initiative.
BLS and the states need funding to speed up this effort and allow all states to participate.
With these data collected and curated on an ongoing basis, BLS can provide more detailed
and granular statistics and evaluators can produce better and faster studies of program
impacts. Then workers and employers will have better data to guide their decisions, program
officials will have better input for allocating their efforts, and policymakers will have better
evidence about policy effectiveness and gaps that need to be addressed.

Only with 21st century data can the country ensure that its institutions, policies, and
programs efficiently support a dynamic and equitable labor market in the 21st century.

Second, we must strengthen the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). WIOA is
the primary funding source offering STARs access to skills training and supportive service
programs to ensure that they are learning the skills to obtain in-demand, good jobs with
family sustaining wages as well as providing employers with highly skilled workers. WIOA
creates a strong alignment between workforce, education, and economic development
systems that provides STARs with access to a variety of programs and services to help meet
their career goals.

WIOA could further strengthen this alignment by elevating community colleges as the key
players that they are in local economies and encouraging increased investment in them to
develop STARs’ skills in existing and emerging fields as part of the law’s sector partnerships
requirement. For decades now, community colleges have been an engine of economic
mobility for STARs because they are flexible, affordable and accessible. The majority of
STARs (56%) have some college credit, and nearly 1 out of every 5 STARs has an associates
degree. In the next decade, those traits will be direly needed, along with innovative
enhancements, to create an adaptable system that more deeply connects workers with
education and employment. In addition, stakeholders that are a part of sector partnerships
should be encouraged through WIOA to use skills as the unit through which to design
skills-based training, reimagine job descriptions, and improve hiring processes. Support to
employers and education institutions to make these changes could be delivered through
technical assistance through the business services that workforce investment boards
already provide to employers.

WIOA also can also benefit from better performance measures. We measure and track what
we care about. STARs have been left behind for a generation of economic prosperity in a
systematic way. To begin to shift that, we must think about performance metrics to track
outcomes of STARs - including measurement of income shifts, their skills, support services -
and more. A decision to measure impacts behavior: for instance, when we have
opportunities to allocate state funding under major programs such as WIOA, how might we
consider allocating funding toward plans that encourage STAR hiring? Or, imagine the impact
that a Pay for Success model could mean for increased STAR employment in middle-wage

Third, policy makers can support employers as they experiment with new ways to
implement skills-based hiring. For example, employers are deploying apprenticeships and
other work-based learning programs to create new opportunities for entry into roles that
are often off-limits to STARs. Our research shows that since 2010 registered
apprenticeships have expanded to more than 100 new roles, and employers have
implemented informal apprenticeships in an additional 200 roles. Further, nearly 40% of
workers entering new registered apprenticeship programs were going into high-wage roles,
including management, healthcare, and information technology - pathways for which
employers have traditionally required a bachelor’s degree.9

This expansion is allowing STARs, especially STARs, and in particular workers of color and
women, to enter jobs they traditionally have less access to. Whereas 8% of workers who are
Management Analysts are Black in our labor market, 19% of apprentices studying to become
Management Analysts are Black; and whereas 19% of software developers in our labor
market are women, in 2021, women made up 31% of people entering an apprenticeship for
this role.5 Expanding access and investment in these pathways is a critical lever to improve
equity for STARs. A federal investment in technical assistance for apprenticeships and other
work-based learning programs could spur innovation and encourage adoption of these

Conclusion: STARs are a solution to many workforce challenges we currently

In closing, I thank you for your commitment to building a skills-based economy. STARs are a
critical part of the workforce - it is time to activate them to meet the needs of American
businesses for this next generation.
I am happy to answer any questions you may have. Thank you for your time today.…