Add paper ceiling to the growing list of workplace buzzwords. That’s the term for barriers degree requirements create for job seekers without a college diploma.
The paper ceiling doesn’t just hurt the 50% of the U.S. workforce that lacks a four-year degree — it also hamstrings U.S. businesses, many of which have been struggling with severe labor shortages. In July, job openings rebounded back to two for every unemployed person. Meanwhile, college enrollment is dropping.
That’s a tough combination for many employers, as nearly 70% of new jobs come with degree requirements.
The phrase “paper ceiling” is being broadcast in a new national PSA produced by the workforce development organization Opportunity@Work and the Ad Council, a nonprofit creative agency known for campaigns like Smokey Bear’s catch phrase “only you can prevent forest fires,” and the drunk-driving slogan “friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Major companies, from Walmart to Google to LinkedIn, have thrown their weight behind the initiative.
Over 70 million workers in the U.S. have developed skills on the job through military service, or by attending community college or other training programs, according to research by Opportunity@Work. These people are disproportionately people of color, veterans or from rural areas. Negative stereotypes and hiring algorithms that screen out applicants without degrees have stunted their economic mobility: Over the past 30 years, those without degrees lost access to good jobs and saw the wage gap between them and those with degrees double.
Employees without a bachelor’s degree now make less on average than they did in 1976, adjusting for inflation.
Justin Hutchinson, a director of business development profiled by the campaign, took a job at a smoothie shop in college to pay the bills. He would memorize customers’ cars and their orders so he could spend his time getting to know them as soon as they walked in. One of his customers, a CEO of a marketing company, was so impressed with his people skills that he offered him an internship. Hutchinson decided to take a full-time job with the company rather than finish his degree, which would have placed him deeply in debt. He attributes his success to an employer thinking outside the bounds of a college transcript.
It remains to be seen whether this ad will have an effect on employers’ demand for degrees. For some, though, as the campaign’s website says: “Now the enemy has a name.”
Timely, incisive articles delivered directly to your inbox.