The paper ceiling is real.
Even in one of the tightest job markets in history, 44% of recent job openings required a bachelor’s degree. The paper ceiling, like the more familiar glass ceiling, refers to an artificial barrier preventing qualified candidates from advancing into new roles.
In this case, that barrier is literally paper – a diploma.
Of course, the number of job postings requiring degrees has declined as more and more large employers pledge to drop degree requirements and instead hire based on skills. But even many mid-level positions—those that should require less than a four-year degree—still require a bachelor’s degree.
A major advertising campaign, Tear the Paper Ceiling, led by the Ad Council and non-profit organization Opportunity@Work, aims to change that. They advocate for increased opportunities for the more than 70 million qualified Americans through alternative pathways, or STARs, who have the skills to fill more advanced roles than they currently do.
Tearing down or tearing up the paper ceiling, however, won’t be easy. Even if we could wave a magic wand and poof the credential requirements overnight, we would still have the same hiring practices, management culture and job structures. Changing these is not as simple as changing the requirements on paper.
Working with many Fortune 500 companies over the past few years, I have seen time and time again the important role that job structure and experience requirements play. LinkedIn’s analysis found that about 35% of “entry-level” jobs require two to three years or relevant work experience. In areas like software and IT services, it jumps to 60%.
Convincing hiring managers to waive both educational and experience requirements at the same time is a particularly tough sell. These hiring managers assume what they perceive to be high risks in this scenario.
Creating gateway roles can help solve this problem. They create a path through the paper ceiling.
Bridge roles are jobs that create a bridge between frontline work and destination roles, which may require higher-level professional training and potentially degrees. Consider a computer generalist or a nurse’s aide. In some industries and businesses they arise organically while in most they must be created intentionally. A warehouse worker at Walmart, for example, does not “naturally” progress to an IT position: this path must be created and encouraged.
By creating a new role, companies can design the standards for that role from scratch. They can and should design it to require specific skills, but not a degree. Workers may need certification or other training, or just experience and a way to demonstrate their skills. The reality of low-experience jobs exists, it is usually reserved for new university graduates. The same could be done to design gateway tasks. For hiring managers, it also paves the way for hiring and recruiting. This expands the talent pool.
While in the bridge position, workers gain the two to three years of experience in a given job family – a broad category like IT and IT or clinical care delivery – that they will need to upgrade to the “entry-level” destination. works. Ideally, these roles come with built-in options for workers: one door can open many.
A computer specialist, for example, could become a junior-level cyber specialist, data analyst, or programmer. They would also have been well placed to develop transferable skills – project management, expertise with databases and spreadsheets, problem solving or customer service – which, with additional training, would allow them to access a destination role in sales or accounting.
Some roles, such as programming, should be accessed primarily through two to three years of on-the-job learning. Others may need additional formal education and even a bachelor’s degree.
In all cases, the gateway role serves as stable place from which to plan and launch this next move. Bon Secours Mercy Health, for example, has designed a nursing support gateway role in which workers in linen services, patient transport or food services can move quickly. From there, they can take further education and training to become a nurse’s aide and then a staff nurse with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree.
The bridging role is the key ingredient, ensuring workers don’t wait two, four or more years to graduate and get their first promotion. It also ensures employers have greater retention as their workforce sees opportunities in their future.
Gateway roles also provide options for employers. In their most intensive form, these jobs can look a lot like apprenticeships, with mentorship and formal education phased in alongside two to three years of work experience.
In other words, their intensity can increase or decrease depending on the job family and an employer’s future labor needs and resources. Walmart, for example, has built career paths into its Live Better U program that combine training, job rotations and tuition assistance to help frontline workers move into roles critical to the company’s future. In all roles, Walmart critically reviewed the skills and credentials actually required.
Rethinking the role of the baccalaureate in hiring and promotion is at the heart of this work. But smart companies also recognize that you can’t just ditch the degree requirements and call it a day.
If we’re going to tear up the paper ceiling, we can’t just remove the old keeper, the diploma. We must also build new bridges.