By: Megan Cowman on December 6th, 2022

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What is the Paper Ceiling? And How Does It Affect DEI&B?


We have all heard of the glass ceiling, the invisible barrier that prevents equal opportunity. But what is the Paper Ceiling, and how does it affect your Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging (DEI&B) strategy?

What is the paper ceiling?

The paper ceiling refers to the fact that so many jobs require an academic qualification, such as a Bachelor’s degree or Master’s degree. A 2022 study found that 62% of employers require a college degree, even for entry-level positions.

However, over 50% of the current workforce does not hold a qualification higher than a high school diploma. These people can’t even get an interview because they don’t have a degree. That is the paper ceiling.

Many of these people have vital skills and knowledge. They may have served in the military, earned a professional certification, run their own business, or have on-the-job experience. But they are shut out because of two words: “degree required”.

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How does the paper ceiling affect workers?

Workers suffer from the paper ceiling, whether they’re currently employed or they’re seeking a job. People encounter issues such as:

  • Lower lifetime earnings: Lower education requirements usually means lower pay. The problem compounds over time, as the person doesn’t have time or money to invest in their career.
  • Limited career progression: Experienced workers often make good managers. However, most people need a degree to apply for managerial roles or leadership training.
  • Skills stagnation: People without degrees still have valuable skills and professional knowledge. Normally, employers would help to develop those skills, but the paper ceiling can stand in the way of further training.

How does the paper ceiling affect employers?

Employees and job seekers aren’t the only ones who suffer from the paper ceiling. Employers lose out too. Common problems include:

  • Longer recruitment cycles: When you require a degree, you’re automatically eliminating over 50% of the talent pool. This can mean fewer applicants, more competition with other employers, and a longer time-to-hire.
  • Low engagement: Career progression is a vital driver of employee engagement. If employees feel that they’ve reached the paper ceiling, they may begin to lose focus on their job.
  • Poor DEI&B outcomes: The paper ceiling affects minorities most of all. For instance, 26% of Black workers have college degrees, compared to 40% of white workers. The paper ceiling can create a biased hiring process, which undermines your entire DEI&B strategy

How to tear the paper ceiling in your organization

Walmart, Google, Chevron and Accenture are just some of the companies that have committed to challenge the paper ceiling as part of the STARs initiative, part of the Tear The Paper Ceiling initiative.

STAR stands for Skilled Through Alternative Routes. The STARs initiative offers education and support to employers, helping you to change your recruitment process—without compromising on candidate quality.

You can download the STARs playbook here. If you’re considering implementing this initiative, here are some steps we would recommend:

1. Learn more about your current situation

First step is to talk to all stakeholders and see if your organization has a paper ceiling. Speak to HR and hiring managers to see how many of your internal positions require a degree.

It’s also a good idea to talk to your DEI&B committee and any Employee Resource Groups. They can tell you more about the reality of your employee and candidate experience.

2. Review your professional development program

Your current team might be full of STARs. Take a look at who has access to opportunities, including leadership training and management experience. If there’s a clear bias towards college-educated people, you might need to intervene.

Remember: sometimes the paper ceiling can be unofficial. Your professional development program might have a bias toward degree holders, even if there’s no formal requirement for a college education.

3. Rethink your job requirements

The most powerful thing you can do is ask: does this job really require a college-educated person? In some cases, a degree is a nice-to-have requirement, but the job description lists it as a must-have. Clarify this requirement with the new recruit’s direct manager.

Another question is: can we look at alternative qualifications? For example, IT jobs often require a relevant degree, but could you consider a candidate who has Microsoft certification and hands-on IT experience?

4. Move to a skills-based hiring process

Hiring managers often start by looking at the candidate’s education and experience. But this doesn’t tell you much about the candidate’s passions, working culture, or the areas in which they excel. You need to interview them before you really understand their skills.

What about making your entire hiring process about skills? Create application forms that focus on skills, and ask interview questions that

Need help with DEI&B?

The paper ceiling is just one example of how a Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging strategy can make it easier to attract and retain great people. Tackling the paper ceiling in your organization gives you access to a new pool of talent: workers skilled through alternative means. 

DEI&B can take a lot of work. If you need some help, it's a good idea to bring in an experienced consultant who can show you how to make a more inclusive organization. 

Need some help? Book a call with a Helios HR consultant and find out how to tackle the paper ceiling in your organization.  

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