Navigating the Paper Ceiling

Most people are familiar with the glass ceiling, a term that describes the barriers that women and people of color face when trying to advance their careers and move up the organizational chart. But another barrier has emerged that makes life difficult for a majority of workers in the country: the paper ceiling.

The paper ceiling refers to career advancement barriers experienced by those without a college degree. Almost 38% of the American population aged 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, according to U.S. Census Bureau numbers on educational attainment. That means the paper ceiling potentially impacts 62% of the workforce.

The paper ceiling especially affects people who come from underserved communities and low-income neighborhoods, including those known as STARS (Skilled Through Alternative Routes). These include people who have learned critical work skills through on-the-job training, military service, certificate programs, workforce training, and boot camps.

Will Villota, VP of marketing communications at the non-profit organization Opportunity@Work, told Fair360, formerly DiversityInc’s Linda Bell that his organization is trying to tear the invisible barrier known as the paper ceiling.

“The stereotype people have about that workforce is that no degree means no skill,” Villota said. “One of our primary goals is to shatter those myths.”

Visit Fair360 Enterprise to read more about the “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign. 

How the Paper Ceiling Impacts Employees, Employers

The paper ceiling often costs those without a college degree a chance to maximize their talents and boost their careers into more challenging positions with more responsibility and higher earning potential. A study by Opportunity@Work found that as many as 70 million STARS are held back by bachelor’s degree requirements for certain jobs.

The research also found that 30 million of those STARS could make up to 70% more in salary with access to these jobs. This seems especially unjust because so many issues can impact whether someone attends college, many of them outside of a person’s control. They include financial barriers, family obligations, health issues, and a decision to serve the country in the military rather than attend college out of high school.

It also disproportionately impacts people of color. Opportunity@Work reports that STARS workers include the majority of the nation’s Black, Hispanic and essential workers as well as military veterans.

The paper ceiling also has a negative impact on employers. By overlooking millions of workers with in-demand skills and experience because they lack a bachelor’s degree, business leaders find themselves desperately trying to maintain a strong pipeline of talent.

This lack of qualified workers creates a shortage of applicants for important jobs. But in many cases, employers have created this situation for themselves through automated systems that immediately reject job applicants who do not hold a bachelor’s degree.

What Companies Can Do

Debra Gore-Mann, President and CEO of the Greenlining Institute, spoke about the paper ceiling in the financial services sector before the U.S. House of Representatives Financial Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Diversity. The Greenlining Institute, based in Oakland, California, focuses on improving the economic situation for people of color.

RELATED: “Fair360, formerly DiversityInc CEO Discusses Financial Services Inclusion During House Subcommittee Hearing”

Gore-Mann said much of the issue stems from algorithms used by companies to sort resumes. They typically kick out those without a four-year degree for certain jobs. She said some companies are altering the algorithms to include HBCUs or community colleges, adding, “If you’re including some of those metrics, you will in fact create a more diverse pool to allow candidates to have achievement.”

Companies that do not adjust how automated systems scan job resumes are “signaling that it is not important,” Gore-Mann told the subcommittee. “So, I think how you set the goals, how you message, how you account for it, and then what you measure is also a way of somehow breaking through that paper ceiling.”


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