The paper ceiling is real.
Even in one of the tightest labor markets in history, 44% of recent job openings required a bachelor’s degree. The paper ceiling, like the more familiar glass ceiling, is a reference to an artificial barrier holding back qualified candidates from rising into new roles.
In this case, that barrier is literally paper—a degree.
Sure, the number of job postings requiring degrees has been coming down as more major employers pledge to drop degree requirements and instead hire based on skill. But even many middle-skill roles—those that should require less than a four-year degree—are still requiring a bachelor’s.
A major ad campaign, Tear the Paper Ceiling, run by the Ad Council and the nonprofit Opportunity@Work, aims to change that. They’re advocating for increased opportunity for 70-plus million Americans skilled through alternative routes, or STARs, who have the skills to be working in more advanced roles than they currently are.
Tearing down or tearing through the paper ceiling, however, won’t be easy. Even if we could wave a magic wand and poof degree requirements overnight, we’d still have the same old hiring practices, management culture, and job structures. Changing those is not as simple as changing the requirements on paper.
In working with many Fortune 500 companies over the past few years, I’ve seen time and again what a profound role job structure and experience requirements play. Analysis by LinkedIn found that about 35% of “entry-level” jobs require two to three years or relevant work experience. In fields like software and IT services, it jumps to 60%.
Convincing hiring managers to give up both degree requirements and experience requirements simultaneously is an especially tough sell. Those hiring managers are taking on what they perceive as high risks in this scenario.
Creating gateway roles can help solve for that. They create a path through the paper ceiling.
Gateway roles are jobs that create a bridge between frontline work and destination roles, which may require higher level skills training and potentially degrees. Think of an IT generalist or a nursing assistant. In some industries and companies, they organically arise while in most they have to be intentionally created. A warehouse worker at Walmart, for example, doesn’t “naturally” move into an IT role—that pathway has to be created and encouraged.
By creating a new role, companies get to design the norms of that role from scratch. They can and should design it to require specific skills but not a degree. Workers might need a certification or other training, or just experience and a way to demonstrate skills. The reality of low experience jobs exists, it’s just usually reserved for fresh college graduates. The same could be done to design gateway jobs. For hiring managers, this opens up hiring and recruiting, too. It broadens the pool of talent.
While they’re in the gateway role, workers get the two to three years of experience in a given job family—a broad category like IT and computing or clinical caregiving—that they’ll need to move up into “entry-level” destination jobs. Ideally, these roles come with optionality for workers built in: One door can open many.
An IT specialist, for example, could become a cyber specialist, data analyst, or junior-level programmer. They also would have been well positioned to develop transferable skills—project management, expertise with databases and spreadsheets, problem solving, or customer service—that with additional education would allow them to move into a destination role in sales or accounting.
Some roles, such as programming, should be accessible mostly through two to three years of on-the-job learning. Others may require additional formal education and even a bachelor’s.
Either way, the gateway role serves as a stable place from which to plan and launch that next move. Bon Secours Mercy Health, for example, designed a nursing support gateway role that workers in linen services, patient transport, or food services can move into quickly. From there, they can get additional education and training to become a nurses aide and then a bedside nurse with an associate or a bachelor’s.
The gateway role is the key ingredient—ensuring workers aren’t waiting two, four, or more years to complete a degree and get their first promotion. It also ensures employers see greater retention as their workforce sees opportunities in their future.
Gateway roles also provide options for employers. At their most intensive, these jobs may look a lot like apprenticeships—with mentoring and formal education laddered alongside a two- to three-year work experience.
In other words, they can scale up and down in intensity based on the job family and an employer’s future workforce needs and resources. Walmart, for example, has built career pathways in its Live Better U program that combine training, job rotations, and educational assistance to help frontline workers move into roles that are critical for the future of the business. Across the roles, Walmart has looked critically at what skills and credentials are truly required.
Rethinking the role of the bachelor’s degree in hiring and promotion is at the heart of this work. But smart companies also recognize that you can’t just drop degree requirements and call it a day.
If we’re going to tear through the paper ceiling, we can’t just remove the old gatekeeper, the degree. We also have to build new gateways.