group of people According toresearchers, "conflating wage levels with skill levels oftenunderestimates and undervalues low-wage workers' skills and thepotential to fill open positions employers need to be successful."(Photo: Shutterstock)

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A lot can be said for on-the-job experience, innate soft skillsand just plain common sense – something millions of workers withoutcollege degrees have that could prove useful in decent-payingcareers, according to "Reachfor the STARs: Realizing the Potential of America's Hidden TalentPool."

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The report, released by Opportunity@Work and Accenture, detailsthe attributes of more than 71 million individuals currently in theU.S. workforce who do not have college degrees, but are "SkilledThrough Alternative Routes" – or STARs – and have the skills tosucceed in higher-wage jobs.

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Related: High salaries, no student debt driving appeal ofblue-collar jobs

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"All have suitable skill sets to succeed in work that is morehighly valued and therefore better paid than the work they do now —but few realize such upward job mobility today," the authors write."Our findings challenge conventional wisdom about the skills ofworkers without bachelor's degrees, and present some importantimplications for companies, workforce organizations, analysts andSTARs."

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The study compared skillsets for jobs across wage categories andfound that many low-wage jobs require skills that are similar tomiddle-wage jobs, and middle-wage jobs require skills that are alsorequired in high-wage jobs.

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"Workers are developing and deploying marketable skills on thejob at all rungs on the wage ladder," the authors write. "Ourresearch demonstrates that conflating wage levels with skill levelsoften underestimates and undervalues low-wage workers' skills andthe potential to fill open positions employers need to besuccessful."

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The analysis also found that, for all STARs, there is anoccupational role in their geography with skill demands similar totheir current job that pays at least 10 percent more. For almosthalf of STARs, there are such roles paying over 50 percent morethan what they currently earn today.

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"By including barriers such as four-year degree requirements,and limiting access to roles in their companies, employers aremissing out on this large and diverse talent pool, which includesmilitary veterans, opportunity youth, returning citizens, workersin rural communities and smaller metro regions," the authorswrite.

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To best help employers understand how to best support STARs thestudy segments the population by their skills-readiness for higherwage work:

  • 5 million STARs (Shining STARs) currently work in high-wagejobs today, despite the barriers to entry they faced. Shining STARsare proof of what is possible.
  • 30 million STARs (Rising STARs) currently work in jobs withskill requirements suggesting they can perform a job in the nexthighest wage category. They have the skills and potential today tosee transformative wage gains of, on average, more than 70percent.
  • 36 million STARs (Forming STARs) have skills for occupationspaying at least 10 percent higher than their current jobs, but arenot well situated for job transitions that would providetransformative wage gains. Low-wage Forming STARs are especiallysusceptible to the impact of automation.

The report recommends that employers end four-year degreerequirements that prevent them from considering STAR workers;identify and intentionally source from "alternative routes" to findSTAR talent; invest in training and open career pathways for theSTARs already inside their organization.

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Large companies and industry networks can do their part byengaging supplier and partner ecosystem networks to hire anddevelop STARs; encouraging smaller businesses in their supply chainto hire STARs; and enhance products and services for STARs.Moreover, they can improve their job search, applicant tracking andtalent management systems to ensure access and visibility forSTARs; and work with state and federal policymakers "to shape acollective agenda to support STARs across their lifetime."

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The report also provides recommendations for workforcedevelopment leaders, academic researchers, market analysts andpolicymakers.

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"Defining and understanding this pool of workers is the firststep to unleashing STAR talent in ways that could havetransformative effects on our economy, helping employers to fillopen positions required for their businesses and assisting workersto reach their potential," the authors write. "We discuss someimplications of our findings and present calls to action forcompanies, analysts, workforce organizations and workers."

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Katie Kuehner-Hebert

Katie Kuehner-Hebert is a freelance writer based in Running Springs, Calif. She has more than three decades of journalism experience, with particular expertise in employee benefits and other human resource topics.