Researchers say millions have missed a step into the middle class

Researchers say millions have missed a step into the middle class

Over the past two decades, workers without four-year college degrees have lost their ground in occupations that served as ladders to middle-class life for themselves and their families.

While this trend was well known, putting a number on the lost jobs was a long way off. A new study published Friday estimates that such workers have displaced 7.4 million jobs since 2000.

The research points to the continuing challenge facing nearly two-thirds of American workers who do not have a four-year college degree, even as some employers have ditched the requirement in recent years.

“These workers have been displaced from millions of specific jobs that provide them with the ability to navigate upward,” said Papia Debroy, head of research at Opportunity@Work, the nonprofit organization that published the study. “It represents a huge loss for the workers and their families.”

Opportunity@Work is part of an emerging coalition of groups seeking to change the culture of hiring and promotion in American companies. They are trying to encourage a shift to employment and career development based on people’s skills rather than certifications.

Part of this effort is to create a body of research that highlights the problem but also the untapped potential of workers.

The group’s researchers analyzed employment trends across a variety of occupations. Jobs included business managers, nurses, software developers, sales supervisors, financial analysts, purchasing agents, industrial engineers, and administrative assistants.

The study concluded that if workers without college degrees had kept a share of those jobs they held in 2000, there would have been 7.4 million more of them by the end of 2019.

An earlier study by Opportunity@Work, with academic researchers, dissected skills across different occupations and found that as many as 30 million workers have the skills to realistically transition to new jobs that pay an average of 70 percent more than their current jobs.

Some major companies have begun adjusting their hiring requirements. Rework America Business Network, an initiative of the Markle Foundation, has pledged to embrace skill-based hiring for many jobs. Companies in the group include Aon, Boeing, McKinsey, Microsoft and Walmart.

OneTen, a nonprofit organization, has amassed commitments from dozens of companies to achieve the goal of hiring or promoting one million black workers without college degrees into family-sustaining income jobs over the next decade. Companies include Accenture, AT&T, Bank of America, Caterpillar, Delta Air Lines, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Merck, Target and Wells Fargo.

The drive to increase workforce diversity is one driver for change. College degree screening particularly affects minorities, eliminating 76 percent of black adults and 83 percent of Latino adults.

But companies and labor experts are also stressing the competitive and economic benefits of tapping into a larger pool of qualified workers.

“The country as a whole would benefit from not cutting off human capital,” said Erica Groschen, an economist at Cornell University and former head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There is recent evidence that an epidemic shortage of workers may prompt companies to relax degree requirements. A study published this month by Keith Wardrip, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, compared online job listings in the five quarters before the Covid hit and the five afterward.

During the pandemic, there were 2.3 million job openings for what it classified as job openings — those that pay more than the national average wage of $36,660 and are accessible to workers without a four-year college degree.

Much of the increase is due to the high demand by companies that were suffering from a shortage of labor as many people withdrew from the labor market due to health reasons, family obligations or personal reasons. But Wardrip found that 38 percent of the increase was attributable to lower education requirements for some jobs.

Big companies that have moved to skill-based hiring in recent years say the shift has given them a stronger and more diverse workforce.

A few years ago, Wells Fargo, as part of a broader review, was rethinking its hiring and career development practices. Carly Sanchez, Executive Vice President of Recruitment and Diversified Recruitment, recalled a question at the time, “Are we removing some of the best talent?”

The bank decided it was and changed its practices. Today, more than 90 per cent of jobs at Wells Fargo do not require a four-year degree, “almost the complete reversal of ours” from five years ago, Ms Sanchez said.

Accenture started an apprenticeship program in 2016. What started as a citizenship initiative for small businesses, with fewer than 20 interns, has become an important part of the hiring and hiring of a technology consulting and services firm.

Accenture this week announced its goal of filling 20 percent of its entry-level jobs in America through its apprenticeship program in its current fiscal year, which ends in August. The company expects to have 800 trainees this year.

The company said entry-level employees have excelled at measures such as productivity and retention. They often bring skills and traits nurtured in previous jobs or in the military such as teamwork, communication, perseverance, and curiosity — so-called soft skills that are important to clients on technology projects.

In the shift to skill-based recruitment, Opportunity@Work and other groups are referring workers, such as STARs, to skilled workers through alternative methods. The term is meant to emphasize the skills that a large portion of American workers have acquired rather than the degree to which they lack.

Accenture’s apprenticeship program began by preparing people for back-office technology support roles, but has become a pathway to higher-skilled tech jobs working on client projects, said Jamie Etheridge, Accenture’s chief executive officer in North America.

“I was surprised by how far the apprenticeship program progressed in technical roles,” he said. “I didn’t think it would become as big as it is.”

After completing the year-long apprentice program, Dale Walker, 28, of Chicago, became a full-time employee at Accenture in 2020. Ms. Walker, like 80 percent of those who go through the program, do not have a college degree. But she has held a series of jobs, completed community college courses in nursing and information technology, and graduated from Year Up, a national nonprofit job training program.

Ms. Walker is currently a software engineering analyst, working with software development teams at Accenture and its clients – most recently a large fast food company. She has mastered technical skills such as basic programming and software testing techniques, and adds to them both on the job and by taking online courses on her own.

“If there is a new skill set, I learn it,” said Ms. Walker, who is aiming to become a software developer at Accenture.

Ms. Walker declined to reveal how much she makes, but her circumstances have certainly changed. “I can buy things now,” she said. “If I want to buy an expensive wallet, I can.”

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