How I Tore Through the Paper Ceiling

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I was in a meeting discussing talent development recently where the group was asked to rsvp to a “Tear the Paper Ceiling” launch event.  Like many, I had heard of the glass ceiling, but the paper ceiling had me discretely tapping the term into Google on my phone.  The definition that came back was, the invisible barrier that comes at every turn for workers without a bachelor’s degree.” There are more than 70 million workers in the United States that possess in-demand skills and experience, but they are being overlooked for higher-wage jobs because they don’t have a bachelor’s degree. 

Immediately, a bell went off for me as I recalled my experience with the paper ceiling as I was trying to start my career.

As a junior in college, I contracted bacterial meningitis, a very deadly infection of the brain and spinal cord.  While I was treated successfully it took me two months to fully recover and therefore received an incomplete for my entire spring semester. At the time, I was a full-time student and part-time worker to help to pay my way.  While the university I attended was understanding of my situation, they were not inclined to reimburse my tuition for the missed semester.  As I entered my senior year, I recognized that I was not going to graduate with my bachelor’s degree and needed to create some new options.

I had heard of a skills-based training program that was offered to students from associated universities that had the reputation of placing 100% of the students that went through in research technician jobs. STARs stands for “Skilled Through Alternative Routes” and describes adults without bachelor’s degrees with work experience and skills that position them for higher-wage jobs. They’ve normally gone to community college, workforce training, boot camps, certificate programs, military service, or on-the-job learning, but the fact they have not obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher keeps them out of consideration for higher-paid positions. Additionally,  the lack of alumni networks, biased algorithms, degree screens, false stereotypes, and misperceptions contribute to the paper ceiling, which creates barriers to upward economic mobility for STARs.

While at times derided as “not academic,” I applied with the hope of an assured job after college was over.   The program was excellent as I learned skills that were relevant to the needs of hiring managers at that time in laboratories around the country.  I would not have learned these if I had stayed the course of the curriculum offered in my degree category.  

Over Spring Break of my senior year, I interviewed at a number of academic laboratories in the Boston area and landed three job offers before the end of the semester. 

I chose to work at Boston University School of Medicine as I could work during the day and as an employee, I could take tuition-free classes in the evening towards finishing my degree.  Ironically, after six months on the job, the professor for whom I worked let the lab know that he was shutting it down and moving across the country!  This left me in a bind, as I would now have to find a new job without a degree in a field where bachelor’s degrees were an absolute requirement. 

According to insights from Opportunity@Work, there are 4 million STARs already in high-wage roles, while 32 million more STARs have the skills for significantly higher-wage work (72% higher wages on average) based on their current roles. Since the turn of the century, estimates say STARs have lost access to 7.4 million higher-wage jobs. The paper ceiling has also suppressed STARs’ earnings for decades: over the last 40 years, the wage gap between STARs and workers with bachelor’s degrees has doubled. Adjusted for inflation, STARs now earn less on average than they did in 1976.

As I started my job search, I was introduced to a senior scientist at a biotechnology company who needed to hire someone with experience with a complicated and time-intensive lab technique.  Fortunately, this is the exact technique I developed and refined in my 6 months at BU.  When we met, I was upfront about the reasons for my lack of a degree and the plans to finish it by going to school at night. I also stressed my experience with the lab technique for which she was hiring, and my willingness to work the long days required to perform it.  

It was to my great delight that she rated having the skills required right at the start above the other candidates that had a degree.  

As a bonus, she let me know that the company reimbursed tuition as long as I received a grade of B or better in the class!  I wound up working at the company for 5 years, finishing my Bachelor’s degree, and successfully applying to a Ph.D. program.  All because I had the fortune to meet two hiring managers that cared more for the right skills, rather than the right piece of paper.

The willingness of employers to integrate talent strategies into programs and recruitment culture is all that stands between antiquated, degree-based meritocracy and employment for millions of highly qualified STARs. Founders within our community can tear apart the paper ceiling in a first step towards reopening promising pathways for highly qualified individuals and creating a more inclusive job market.

When looking through the next round of job applicants, look beyond a diploma and traditional pathways to employment, and consider talent with the right skills and experience to get the job done.

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