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

By Opportunity@Work and Accenture – Published 2021 by Opportunity@WorkSubscribe to the WFMonitor eNewsletter

STARs are defined as workers generally 25 years or older who are “Skilled Through Alternative Routes.” Individuals classified as STARs do not have a four-year bachelor’s degree but have skills gained through entry-level work experience that are not recognized by employers hiring for middle-to-high-wage positions. STARs are a population of approximately 71 million workers and make up about half of the active workforce in the United States. According to this report, 30 million STARs, referred to as Rising STARs, “currently work in jobs with skill requirements suggesting they can perform a job in the next highest wage category,” and 36 million STARs, referred to as Forming STARs, “have skills for occupations paying at least 10% higher than their current jobs, but are not well situated for job transitions that would provide transformative wage gains.” 

Skill Needs of Employers & Low-Wage Workers
With the economy increasingly shifting towards automation, employers are prioritizing different skill sets from job candidates. A 2019 Harvard Business Review report noted that “seventy percent of C-suite and business leaders indicate that the role-specific skill shifts their companies require will be significant.” Generally, skills such as “creativity, socio-emotional intelligence and complex reasoning” will be in high-demand from employers. 

For workers without college degrees, the current labor market has not been amenable to their needs. “More than 60% of the active U.S. workforce who lack a four-year college degree express high levels of dissatisfaction with their current job opportunities.” In addition, for this population of workers, there has been a scarcity of new job opportunities. Based on Opportunity@Work and Accenture research, “74% of new jobs created between 2007 and 2016 were in jobs where employers typically require a 4-year college degree leaving only 26% of new jobs available to 60% of the population.” However, the employment barriers to higher-wage occupations for many low-wage, non-degreed workers are not the result of a skills gap. Through an analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*NET, and Current Population Survey (CPS) data, Opportunity@Work and Accenture found evidence of millions of low-wage workers with job skills conferrable to higher-wage occupations. 

Skill Set Similarities Between Entry-Level and Middle-to-High-Wage Workers
Using O*NET “to define the skills of more than 750 occupations,” Opportunity@Work and Accenture analyzed over 100 thousand skill set and job pairings to measure skill similarities between occupations to understand what possible transitions could exist for employees.  For example in the sales sector, a typical entry-level sales representative position requires near identical skills to a higher paying advertising sales position, despite the wage discrepancy  between the two being close to $40,000 per year. 

Overall, based on a STAR’s (non-degreed worker’s) competencies, there are similar  opportunities for advancement in job fields such as personal care and service, sales, healthcare and support, and office and administration support, among others. However, in other fields such as operations analysis and science and systems evaluation, entry-level job skills are not not enough for employment. 

LinkedIn Analysis of Alternative Pathways to IT Support Specialist and Inside Sales Occupations
According to a LinkedIn analysis, STARs worked in over 3,000 different job fields before transitioning to an IT support specialist position. “The ten most commonly held positions prior to this job included similar experience, like computer technician or information technology specialist, but also included non-technical roles, such as customer service or salesperson.” For inside sales, there were more than 2,500 different pathways taken by non-degreed workers. The ten most common roles held by individuals prior to the higher-wage role included “sales specialist, account manager, computer service specialist, office manager and administrative assistant.” 

Demographics of STARs & Sampling Method
Of 144 million active U.S. workers, 71 million are classified as STARs. Nearly all STARs are over the age of 25, except for 3 million who are Opportunity Youth. 

To define the STAR population for this report, Opportunity@Work and Accenture first focused on 142 million active workers above the age of 25 and 4 million Opportunity Youth (who are neither working or in school) between the ages of 16 and 24. Then, 60 million active workers with a bachelor’s degree, 14 million without a high school diploma or equivalent, and 5 million with no occupational data were excluded from the sample. Next, data about the remaining 71 million STARs’ current occupations was collected from the Current Population Survey and analyzed with the O*NET database to infer individuals’ skills. Finally, “to identify potential transitions for each worker, [Opportunity@Work and Accenture] came up with a measure of skill similarity between occupations by measuring the Euclidean distance between skills performed in current occupations and potential ‘destination’ occupations.” For more information on methodology see the report’s technical appendix

Three STARs Segments:

  • Shining STARs: Workers in this group earn at least $77,000 annually, and their successful non-four-year degree pathways can be used as a barometer for other STARs. “The most common occupations for Shining STARs include software developers and chief executives of mostly small and mid-sized businesses,” other common jobs in this segment include registered nurses and urban planners. Five million STARs are Shining STARs
  • Rising STARs: Workers with skills that confer to jobs in “the next highest wage group” are considered Rising STARs. Of 30 million Rising STARs, 20 million are in low-wage jobs and 10 million are in middle-wage jobs. Common occupations for middle-wage STARs include managers, nurses, accountants, and teachers. For low-wage Rising STARs, common current occupations are retail sales and customer service representatives. 
  • Forming STARs: Workers “in low-wage or middle-wage occupations who have skills that are valued in jobs that pay at least 10% in their local region, but not skills that are valued in jobs that pay wages in the next wage group” are considered Forming STARs. The most common low-wage positions for Forming STARs include cashiers, drivers, and janitors. For middle-wage workers common jobs are operations manager and administrative service worker. 

Community College as an Alternative Pathway
Sixty percent of Shining STARs have an associate degree or some college. According to an analysis from Chegg, an education technology company, of “600,000 workers who began their education since 2010,” approximately one quarter of community college graduates had low-wage jobs, one fifth had high-wage jobs, and 60% had middle-wage jobs. Common higher wage occupations filled by associate degree workers identified by Chegg “tended to be in fields tied with defined career paths and certifications.” Occupations involving medical certifications such as registered nurse and dental hygienist; expertise in specific tools and processes such as CAD designer, graphic design, and IT help desk; or well-developed roles and paths such as law enforcement and paralegal were tied to high-wage labor outcomes. 

Similar to the labor market as a whole, STARs of underserved populations experience lower wages and less career opportunity than their peers. For example, “a disproportionate share of women from underrepresented racial categories” populate the low-wage Forming STAR cohort. Further, it is critical to invest in non-degree paths for Forming STARs. “Based on Accenture analysis, 38% of the low-wage occupations Forming STARs hold are at high risk of job displacement by automation in the coming years, compared to less than 1% of the jobs of Shining STARs.” 

Millions of Rising STARs are well-positioned to transition to middle- and high-wage jobs. Individuals in this STAR segment generally have “foundational behavioral skills required for most of today’s tech-enabled roles, such as active listening, coordination and social perceptiveness.” Employers offering high-wage positions would be well-served to proactively recruit from this pool of workers and invest in alternative, non-degree pathways. 

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