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How You Can Tear Down the "Paper Ceiling" and Uncover New Talent

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STARs are all around us, the more than 70 million workers in the U.S. who are “skilled through alternative routes” (STARs), rather than via college degrees, and they make up 50% of the U.S. workforce.

But in an industry driven by breakthrough ideas, why do so many of us still screen candidates based on their educational backgrounds and pedigrees instead of the skills and potential they bring to the table? And how many leaders genuinely know the number of talented STARs already working within their organizations who should be given more opportunities to advance?

Last fall, the Ad Council partnered with Opportunity@Work (with the support of nearly 50 national organizations ) to launch a national campaign to change the narrative around the value of STARs. With a PSA calling on all of us to “ Tear Down the Paper Ceiling "—a rallying cry coined by our volunteer ad agency Ogilvy NY—we’re bringing attention to the invisible barrier that holds STARs back from opportunity and prevents employers from tapping into their skills.

I asked a few of our incredible partners to reflect on their involvement and the lessons they’ve learned: Devika Bulchandani, global CEO, Ogilvy; Jacki Kelly, CEO, Dentsu, and board chair at the Ad Council; Byron Auguste, CEO, Opportunity@Work; Aneesh Raman, VP and head of Opportunity Project, LinkedIn; Michelle Hillman, chief campaign development officer, the Ad Council; and Justin Hutchinson, director of business development, ThreeSixtyEight, and a STAR himself. Here’s what they shared.

Devika Bulchandani: Nothing unifies people like a common enemy. In this case, our enemy is an unseen, unspoken barrier between talented workers and the companies that need their skills. Our creative team wanted to give the enemy a name, something that we could all rally against the paper ceiling.

We hope that storytellers, leaders, and creative thinkers across our industry will join us in using the language of the paper ceiling to raise awareness of this issue, which is deeply embedded in hiring and advancement practices. The more people hear about the paper ceiling, the easier it is for them to remember it, recognize it when they see it, and ultimately work together to dismantle it.

Jacki Kelley: Dentsu is honored to partner with the Ad Council to provide pro bono media strategy and outreach to this effort. We are committed to “tearing down the paper ceiling” within our walls.

We’ve equipped our interview teams with the tools to identify potential and challenge their biases by looking for culture adds, not a culture fit. We’ve also launched Dentsu’s Media Experience , an apprenticeship program designed to remove barriers to entering the industry, which welcomes applicants from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

We believe in securing high-performing talent that enhances our work and culture through diverse lived experiences. Skills-based hiring helps us accomplish just that.

Byron Auguste: Smart companies are tearing the paper ceiling by removing unnecessary bachelor’s degree screens and tapping into the STAR talent pool featuring diverse skills for in-demand jobs . Without a STARs talent strategy, you only have half a talent strategy.

Opportunity@Work’s STARs hiring playbook and other “Tear the Paper Ceiling” campaign resources illustrate various proven ways for employers to implement STAR talent strategies. This campaign also offers a platform for STARs in our partner organizations to share their own stories and lead the way. Bottom line: Companies that prioritize skills versus pedigree and proactively recruit and grow STAR talent at scale will innovate, adapt and future-proof their workforce.

Aneesh Raman: For too long, the way people got hired was based solely on their job, the degree they earned, or the people they knew. That's starting to change, and we see it happening on LinkedIn. Nearly one in four U.S. jobs no longer require degrees, as more employers realize that focusing on the actual skills people bring to the table can solve some of our biggest business challenges and unlock opportunities for millions of overlooked candidates. These include the 61% of Black workers or 55% of Hispanic workers who are STARs, 66% of rural workers, and 61% of veterans.

Adopting a skills-first approach that brings these workers into the fold will lead to more resilient businesses, more diverse teams, and, ultimately, a more equitable labor market.

Michelle Hillman: Many communications efforts in this space to date have focused on encouraging STARs to build their skills. We’re now taking a dual-audience approach to help drive demand from the employer side. Everyone can play a role in helping tear the paper ceiling, whether we refer contacts for job openings or help interview candidates.

At the Ad Council, we’re embracing skills-based hiring, including removing education requirements from job descriptions and promoting openings across job boards that reach candidates from a wide range of backgrounds. I look forward to seeing how our industry flourishes when we all help create more opportunities for STARs and give them a chance to shine.

Justin Hutchinson (pictured above): College football was a dream of mine that could have become a reality, but once my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer, higher education became an afterthought. After his passing, I worked at a smoothie shop where the CEO of a marketing agency recognized my people skills and offered me an internship. Five years later, I led our business development department. ThreeSixtyEight developed the campaign website, and my story so moved our client they featured it in a PSA .

STARs like me are everywhere, and it only takes one person to advocate for us so we can show what we’re capable of. I encourage you to be that person in your workplace, and I encourage STARs everywhere to know their worth and go after these opportunities when they come up.

This article was originally published by Ad Age . To learn more about this campaign and how your organization can tap STAR talent, visit TearThePaperCeiling.org .


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