Unlocking experience-based job progressions for millions of workers

Millions of US workers without four-year college degrees are unemployed. Novel data analytics reveal opportunities for them to attain better jobs than they had before the pandemic if there’s action to build a more inclusive economy.

This article is a collaboration between McKinsey & Company, the Markle Foundation, the National Urban League, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, as members of the Rework America Alliance.

The United States is home to 106 million workers who have built capabilities through experience but whose talents are often unrecognized because they don’t have a four-year college degree. 1 These Americans will be crucial contributors to future US economic competitiveness, and a more equitable economy requires their success. Current systems that emphasize traditional degrees and prior experience in the same field have largely failed them, keeping many from securing good jobs, defined here as higher-paying roles that could unlock economic mobility and long-term stability. The COVID-19 pandemic has made this reality truly stark. Indeed, about 5.8 million of these workers, from low- and mid-wage roles (earning less than $42,000 annually), were unemployed as of February 2021, making up roughly 63 percent of all unemployed Americans. 2 And a large share of these workers—about 36 percent, or two million people—are Black and Latinx.

We are at a critical juncture for generating greater opportunities for these workers, experienced job seekers who should be financially rewarded for their know-how. As the United States recovers from the health and economic crises, workers need more opportunities to progress based on their experience and to gain access not only to new jobs but to good jobs that open the door to ongoing economic advancement. If these workers are able to progress, as a nation we can create a more inclusive and equitable recovery, with economic growth and innovation that many more Americans can benefit from in the coming years.

Sidebar

The Rework America Alliance, a Markle Foundation initiative, is a partnership of civil rights organizations, nonprofits, private-sector employers, labor organizations, and educators (see sidebar “What is the Rework America Alliance?”) formed to respond to the employment crisis created by the pandemic, which brought into stark relief the inequities in the labor market. The Alliance is committed to helping unemployed workers from low-wage jobs, particularly people of color who have been disproportionately affected, come back to work in better jobs—jobs that are viable for people based on experience rather than college degrees, are likely to be in demand, and can unlock economic advancement. These include jobs that act as gateways to further career opportunities. The Alliance has brought together the collective experience and capabilities of its partners—which represent the breadth of the labor market—to expand experience-based job progressions.

It will not be easy—workers from low-wage roles face a unique set of challenges. Going back to their prior jobs may not be an option, as a large number of the jobs lost in the pandemic are lost permanently. 3 Moreover, the millions of these workers who are people of color face barriers resulting from racial discrimination, both conscious and unconscious, in the labor market. 4

To prioritize the actions that the Alliance recommends that decision makers—including policy makers, employers, educators, and organizations that serve workers—take to support workers, we started with the facts. But we looked at the facts in novel ways. We looked at the job histories of 29 million people—more than four million of whom did not have a four-year college degree—to understand what is possible. Further, we looked at more than 800 occupations to layer in additional intelligence, such as employment growth by sector and occupation and susceptibility to automation. 5

We build on previous work by Alliance partners and others. For example, Opportunity@Work 6 has led the charge with research that frames how to analyze job progressions and skill distance. The Brookings Institution, 7 Burning Glass Technologies, 8 Emsi, and the Federal Reserve Banks of Philadelphia and Cleveland, 9 among others, have created useful and complementary analyses of job and skill adjacencies—which, taken together, helped identify the most salient opportunities for job seekers.

Building on this strong foundation, we have added the following important layers to identify the actions that those working to support job seekers could take:

  • Credible precedent: What job progressions have real people from the same jobs been able to achieve in the past, with enough scale to give confidence that such progressions could be possible for millions more Americans?
  • Value of experience: Using the credible precedent, which job progressions have been possible specifically for people without a four-year (bachelor’s) degree who were hired into good jobs based primarily on the value of their work experience?
  • A focus on good jobs: Which experience-based job progressions have enabled the most people to attain economic mobility?
  • Near-term availability of good jobs: Which of these job progressions will be most viable in the economic recovery after the pandemic?
  • Future growth of good jobs: How can workers move from sectors with uncertain futures to sectors that will grow? How will automation and shifting global competition change which progressions are attractive?

What did we find? Our analysis shows that unemployed workers from low-wage jobs have acquired the experience needed to make them eligible for good, viable jobs in the near term—and that, over time, these workers can progress in their careers from good, viable jobs to full participation in the ever-changing digital economy’s labor market. Moreover, in recognizing the value of experience in roles outside a sector, employers also open the door for more people of color who belong to labor pools they did not previously consider.

Our analysis shows that unemployed workers from low-wage jobs have acquired the experience needed to make them eligible for good, viable jobs in the near term.

More specifically, we can distill our findings into four insights that can support action by policy makers, employers, educators, and organizations that serve workers:

  1. Seventy-seven hidden Gateway 10 occupations have proved to be springboards to economic advancement and could improve racial representation. Action: expand availability of and access to these Gateways, and also enable workers to pursue the larger set of good, viable jobs as Gateway jobs grow in demand through the recovery.
  2. Seventy percent of these Gateways to economic advancement depend on interpersonal skills, for which experience is particularly important. Action: enable job seekers to recognize, and more effectively harness, their valuable interpersonal skills to make transitions to Gateways and the broader set of good, viable jobs.
  3. Gateways and other good, viable occupations will likely account for nearly 20 percent of employment growth in the next year, but the shape the recovery will take is uncertain, and competition for these roles is likely to be intense. Action: provide more hands-on support to job seekers as they plan their careers to help mitigate future risk and instability. In parallel, make a serious investment to expand and accelerate the growth of Gateway jobs during the economic recovery to better support a more inclusive recovery that provides more opportunities for economic mobility.
  4. Occupations in healthcare and industrials (manufacturing and construction), alongside digital roles that cross sectors, will likely provide about 40 percent of good, viable job growth over the next 12 months. But the barriers are high. Action: make these job progressions more accessible, helping job seekers overcome these barriers.

By acting on these insights, those who seek to expand employment opportunities and support job seekers can increase the odds of a more inclusive, racially equitable, and successful economic recovery.

How to think about experience-based job progression

For a more inclusive US economic recovery, decision makers need to support low-wage job seekers not just in finding jobs but—wherever possible—in finding good, viable jobs. Good, viable jobs are the foundation of experience-based job progressions.

We describe experience-based job progressions using an Origin-to-Gateway-to-Target framework (Exhibit 1). 11 Origins are low-wage occupations from which workers can move into better jobs; nationally, they provide less than $42,000 in median individual income annually for people without a four-year degree. Targets are attractive occupations in terms of risk 12 and income, providing annual salaries of more than $42,000, and have been relatively viable for job seekers from Origins without a four-year degree. These jobs are the ultimate goal. Gateways, which are good roles in themselves, provide a springboard from Origins to Targets. They expand a job seeker’s body of skills or broaden existing skills, positioning the job seeker for an attractive Target role.

One way to look at the US occupation landscape is through the lens of job progression.
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For example, one job progression is from a role as a waiter (Origin) to a training and development specialist 13 (Gateway) to a sales manager (Target). In some cases, job seekers may have undertaken training between jobs to help them progress; in others, they may have benefited from internal promotion. And, in still others, they may have moved directly into an attractive next job.

Sidebar

Given the importance of Gateways, we have applied stringent criteria to determine what qualifies as one (see sidebar “What qualifies as Gateways and Targets?”). In general, these jobs have historically provided a next step that pays more than Origin roles and opens up more opportunities for people coming from those roles.

Workers from Origins can access two types of good, viable jobs in addition to Gateways: Historical Adjacencies and mid-wage Origins. Mid-wage Origin jobs are a subset of Origin jobs that are on the higher end of the pay range and can provide a step up from a low-wage Origin position. Neither provides the same advantages as Gateways, but each one could provide meaningful economic benefits to a worker. Together, these three opportunities reflect the following hierarchy of economic mobility:

  • First and best are Gateways. Thirty-four percent of all good, viable jobs, 14 Gateway roles not only provide good wages but also are the best springboard to attractive Target occupations.
  • Next are Historical Adjacencies. Fourteen percent of all good, viable jobs are Historical Adjacencies. Like Gateways, these jobs have been accessible to people without a four-year degree, provide good wage increases (to an annual salary of more than $42,000 for those without a four-year degree), and can lay the groundwork for a meaningful career. However, they have not proved to unlock progressions to Targets. Predominantly in the trades, these roles include occupations such as pipe fitters and steamfitters, plumbers, and heating and air-conditioning mechanics and installers.
  • Last are mid-wage Origins. Fifty-two percent of good, viable jobs, mid-wage Origins neither unlock job progressions, as Gateways do, nor provide salary increases as high as those of Gateways or Historical Adjacencies. But they do provide a degree of wage increase, with median annual incomes from $37,000 to $42,000 for people without a four-year degree, and employers are hiring more of these roles than the others. These roles include production, planning, and expediting clerks and telecommunications-equipment installers and repairers. These opportunities are especially applicable to people coming from Origin jobs related to maintenance or secretarial work—which is a large subset of unemployed individuals.

Reassessing the opportunities for experience-based job seekers

Our analysis accounts for the economic impact of COVID-19 and focuses on experience-based job seekers in particular. This focus reveals two important differences from transition analyses done by others before the pandemic.

First, COVID-19 has eliminated some past areas of opportunity. For instance, prior research showed that certain administrative and service occupations traditionally offered attractive opportunities to job seekers without a four-year degree. Among the most common of these occupations were customer-service representatives, secretaries and administrative assistants, office clerks, and maintenance and repair workers. Before the pandemic, these occupations were accessible to a large number of job seekers based on their work experience, and these jobs provided higher incomes. Due to the pandemic, however, several of these occupations—including all those mentioned in this paragraph—now have some of the highest unemployment rates in the economy and therefore are not good opportunities for experience-based job seekers from Origins.

Second, even prior to the pandemic, these occupations offered a smaller economic boost to job seekers without a four-year degree than to those with one. For example, the job postings for sales and related workers (within the customer-services occupation family) that were agnostic to education background offered a median salary of $45,696 per year; by contrast, for postings accepting job seekers without a four-year degree, it was $31,104—less than the US median individual income. 15 The contrast is even greater for a role such as building cleaners, for which the job postings agnostic to education background offered a median salary of $44,928 and only $28,032 for job seekers without a four-year degree—putting these workers well below the national median income (Exhibit 2). 16

US workers in the top 35 Origins who have no four-year degree earn an average of about $2,300 less than those who have one.
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We took these realities into account when shaping this analysis of the jobs that provide progressions to economic mobility for workers from Origin occupations. The result is a realistic view of which job progressions likely matter the most today, as unemployed workers return to the workforce after the disruption of the pandemic.

Expanding opportunities for workers: Four insights

Our analysis revealed four insights that answer two of today’s pressing employment questions: What job progressions are available to experience-based job seekers? And which opportunities are most likely to provide economic mobility? These insights can usefully inform actions over the next 12 months to best serve the job seekers who face the highest barriers to employment.

1. Expand access to 77 Gateway occupations to promote economic mobility and improve racial representation

Already, despite innumerable challenges and barriers, many US workers in lower-wage jobs have achieved job transitions based on their skills and experience rather than formal education. Their experiences provide instructive lessons for the 5.8 million currently unemployed job seekers who may wish to advance their economic prospects.

We focus in this section on Gateways, the type of good, viable jobs that enable the most economic mobility. Our analysis reveals that about 77 Gateways are especially effective at unlocking job progressions—that is, job-to-job moves into Target jobs. Expanding the hiring funnel into these Gateways could improve racial representation and employment opportunities across the country.

Unlock job progressions through Gateways

Gateway occupations can help people develop new skills or broaden existing skills, largely through work experience. In both cases, Gateways put job seekers in a better position to attain attractive Target occupations (Exhibit 3; see the Appendix for the full list of Gateways).

Selected Gateways, accessible from a broad range of Origins, have been particularly effective at helping job seekers advance economically.
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Take the following two prominent examples:

Adding new skills—customer-service representatives moving to IT roles ( (Exhibit 4, Progression 1). According to our historical data set, approximately 11,000 workers who had been customer-service representatives moved into good, entry-level IT roles and were able to pursue higher-wage, more sustainable work. IT roles such as computer-user support specialists or document-management specialists tend to require workers to have sales and customer-facing experience as well as a basic understanding of office software (for example, the Microsoft suite). These Gateway IT roles, in turn, enable people to boost specific technical-domain knowledge as well as the ability to apply this knowledge to real-world situations through complex problem solving—a skill that can be honed only by experience. These IT Gateway roles position workers for Target roles such as computer system analysts, which require problem-solving, business, and IT skills.

Broadening existing skills—food-services workers moving to business roles (Exhibit 4, Progression 2). Learning from the roughly 7,000 transitions 17 in the data set, we know it is possible, for instance, for food servers to move into business roles such as advertising sales agents, financial-services sales agents, or sales representatives for services. These business roles tend to require people to have sales and customer-service skills while helping them to build broader business-development and account-management skills and experience—for example, selling techniques, research, and account management—as well as general leadership and management skills, which are best learned through experience. Workers are then able to leverage their advanced skills to access Target roles such as sales managers (which require sales-management and business-development skills); property, real estate, and community-association managers (requiring sales and real estate knowledge); and general and operations managers.

A worker on an Origin-to-Gateway-to-Target progression can learn new skills and transfer and expand existing ones.
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Some of the largest Gateways (by volume of transitions in from Origins) can create many options for employment. First, they create pivot points people can use to switch between occupation families within sectors. Second, they tend to have cross-sector relevance, expanding job seekers’ ability to switch into industries where the number of good jobs is growing (Exhibit 5). This allows workers to mitigate the risk of their career progressions and broadens the types of work available to them. This is especially true of digital and IT-related Gateway roles (for example, computer-user support specialists and software-quality-assurance engineers and testers), as well as business and legal roles (for example, HR specialists and training and development specialists).

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Moreover, the top Gateway positions are not only prevalent across industries but also geographically dispersed across the United States rather than isolated in regional niches. 18 This makes them widely relevant to job seekers across the country and means that workers in those jobs do not necessarily need to relocate to find attractive opportunities—something that would be difficult for many job seekers. 19

Some of the largest Gateways (by volume of transitions in from Origins) can create many options for employment.

Close racial equity and gender gaps in Gateway roles

Crucially, the 77 Gateway occupations could be avenues to improving racial and gender representation in good jobs in the economy (Exhibit 6). Today, Black, Latinx, and female workers are overrepresented in Origins and underrepresented in Gateways and Targets. Helping people make the transition from Origins to Gateways and Targets could make the labor market more equitable and allow more Americans to benefit from good jobs. For this change to occur, the racial and gender barriers that exist across the hiring funnel will need to be addressed head-on.

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What interventions can this insight inspire?

Those who support job seekers can take the following actions:

  • Among institutions that engage and provide support to job seekers, expand awareness of both the 77 Gateways and the broader set of good, viable occupations.
  • Set the aspiration for greater representation of people of color in Gateways and other good, viable occupations.
  • Devote time and resources to understanding systemic barriers to achieving higher levels of representation (for example, the proximity of jobs to diverse neighborhoods and transportation)—and use the findings to inform actions.
  • Focus on addressing racial and gender barriers, particularly in progressions into the 77 Gateway occupations, so that Black, Latinx, and female job seekers are able to transition to Gateways at least in the same proportion as they are employed in the Origins. 20
  • Support training providers in identifying, prioritizing, and making available the targeted training interventions that would allow more job seekers to access Gateways and other good, viable jobs.
  • Help employers adjust to their hiring practices for Gateways and other good, viable jobs to draw on a wider talent pool that includes experience-based job seekers from Origin positions.

2. Recognize interpersonal skills

A striking pattern emerged in our analysis: the job progressions that create the most opportunities are those that depend on interpersonal skills. These skills include customer service, management, and communication. For 53 of the 77 Gateways (70 percent), job seekers were most often able to transfer interpersonal skills from their prior work in Origin roles. 21

What our analysis highlights goes beyond the mere fact that interpersonal skills are important, as employers increasingly recognize. More profoundly, interpersonal skills are the artery that runs through experience-led job progressions, connecting Origins to Gateways to Targets. They are the special element that has enabled job seekers to achieve economic mobility through work experience.

Why? First, interpersonal skills are often best learned through experience—for example, a classroom curriculum can only go so far in developing the interpersonal judgment to know how to make a customer feel comfortable, land a sale, or lead a team of disparate personalities. Second, some on-the-job learning is harder than others. The interpersonal skills behind service, sales, and home care, for example, take time and repetition to learn; experience matters.

Interpersonal skills are the artery that runs through experience-led job progressions, connecting Origins to Gateways to Targets.

The pattern starts with the Origin-to-Gateway transition. Origin occupations with the best Gateway options, combining both the variety and the accessibility of options, tend to be people-oriented roles, such as customer-service representatives, retail salespeople, secretaries, and supervisors—alongside a few Origin roles with specialized, technical skills, such as bookkeeping clerks (Exhibit 7).

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In Origin-to-Gateway transitions, job seekers who used to be customer-service representatives, frontline salespeople, and home health aides, to take a few examples, learned on the job how to engage in a productive dialogue, read human emotion, and collaborate—all interpersonal skills. These skills cannot be learned instantly, which means they have some market value. And they cannot be learned well in a classroom alone; they require experience. Job seekers used these skills to position themselves for Gateways such as HR managers, real estate sales agents, and business-operations specialists.

Next, take Gateway-to-Target transitions. The most common skill overlaps between Gateways and Targets involve people leadership, problem solving, independent project and time management, and communication. Put differently, people in Gateway roles such as HR managers, real estate sales agents, and business-operations specialists built on the skills they had gained in their Origin roles—skills that require basic interpersonal judgment—by learning the art of project and people management. These skills can act as a springboard to a wide range of management roles in many industries. And, again, these are skills best learned by doing.

People skills alone are not sufficient, however. Many progressions require job seekers to build technical competencies—for example, calibration to become an electronics-engineering technician, legal research know-how to become a legal assistant, and health informatics to become a radiologic technologist. However, most of those technical skills can be gained through targeted training, which a job seeker can combine with experience-built people skills to make a transition to a new role.

In sum, to enable millions more US workers to access experience-based job progressions, employers, policy makers, and worker-serving organizations need to expand access and hiring into the roles that depend on the capabilities developed through experience; help job seekers recognize and market these skills, which they may not realize they have; and help employers identify which of their hiring needs depend on experience-based learning and draw upon a wider range of talent to provide them.

What interventions can this insight inspire?

Those supporting job seekers by providing valuable experience can take the following actions:

  • Help job seekers reframe developed interpersonal skills so that the skills can be demonstrated as assets in the job market.
  • Prioritize proven training offerings that address the most common Origin-to-Gateway and Gateway-to-Target skills that are technical rather than interpersonal—especially for digital and IT Gateway roles with broad, cross-industry relevance (for example, SQL and basic IT for computer-user support specialists and document-management systems and Microsoft Access software for document-management specialists).
  • Expand job seekers’ access to relevant and targeted technical training through innovative funding models and additional support for program completion.
  • Design a means of providing and validating experience-based skills and on-the-job learning (such as through the recognition of the value of an Origin role within the candidate pool).
  • Provide employers with incentives to focus on the value of experience, not just credentials, in their recruiting, hiring, and promotion practices—especially for workers from Origin roles (for example, as a criterion for R&D or economic-development funding).

3. Provide more hands-on support to job seekers positioning themselves for good, viable occupations

Identifying attractive job progressions for these workers is only a starting point. It is also critical to understand which jobs will be in demand by employers. As of February 2021, roughly nine million US workers were unemployed and looking for jobs. 22 What jobs will return—and how quickly—to meet this need?

Nobody has a crystal ball to predict the shape of the postpandemic recovery; it is uncertain. We need to consider different scenarios. To that end, the McKinsey Global Institute and Oxford Economics analyzed potential COVID-19 demand-recovery scenarios. 23 Their analysis suggests that both opportunities and challenges exist.

On the one hand, there is a clear opportunity: in the scenario global business executives considered most likely, 24 Gateways and other good, viable jobs account for nearly 20 percent of likely employment growth over the next year, or about one million jobs (Exhibit 8). Of these, half are likely to be Gateways, the best springboards to economic mobility. This suggests that there is a material opportunity to pursue a more inclusive economic recovery.

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On the other hand, job seekers and those supporting them need to be ready for challenges: while some recent studies foresee an economic rebound, the economic recovery from the pandemic could be prolonged. In scenarios analyzed to date by McKinsey and Oxford Economics, employment might not recover to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2022 in the optimistic case or until as late as 2024 in the case considered most likely by employers; the outlooks are similar to those from analyses by Moody’s and other research leaders. 25 That said, a successful infrastructure, climate, or manufacturing-reshoring investment program could accelerate job recovery—leading to a faster, more robust recovery in 2021 and 2022 and providing even more employment opportunities for good, viable jobs in construction, manufacturing, and technology, among other industries. Given the current uncertainty, policy makers and worker-serving organizations need to prepare to support job seekers through this period of economic recovery.

In every plausible scenario, job seekers from Origin positions will need hands-on support from worker-supporting institutions to navigate the complexities of the labor market during the recovery. A first complexity is that, among the roughly one million good, viable job opportunities expected in the next 12 months (Exhibit 8), there will be varying degrees of demand, salary increases, and accessibility from Origins (Exhibit 9). In addition, workers from Origin roles will face competition for good, viable occupations from unemployed workers who formerly held those jobs. Workers will need guidance to set the right priorities in their local job searches and avoid investing in the process only to face dead ends.

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A successful infrastructure, climate, or manufacturing-reshoring investment program could accelerate job recovery—providing even more employment opportunities for good, viable jobs in construction, manufacturing, and technology, among other industries.

Consider long-term risks such as automation

Most workers urgently need to get back to work, but some occupations that could help satisfy a short-term employment need have potential long-term risks. The good, viable occupations we have identified present attractive opportunities in the near term, but 51 percent of them—particularly those in building and construction and mechanical installation, repair, and production—are at risk in the longer term of being eliminated by automation (Exhibit 10).

Automation and offshoring put some good, viable jobs at risk of displacement in the coming five to ten years.
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People can still consider these at-risk jobs as good, viable jobs—after all, in the near term, they provide employment, offer higher wages, and could open the door to economic mobility. The boost of a federal-infrastructure or climate-investment program could support a subset of these jobs over the next decade; in particular, construction jobs could be in high demand to support capital projects.

But there is a risk that workers who enter these jobs may settle in for too long and be blindsided by another wrenching disruption a few years down the road. People may need to transition again, and they may need support to understand the possible nature of the transition and the steps they need to take. It is important, as roles continue to change with the growing digital economy, that workers and those who support them continue to identify new opportunities where experience is valued and training—both on the job and alongside the job—evolves to meet the changing needs.

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In practice, this means that organizations that support job seekers will need to shift from one-off interactions—the norm today—to providing ongoing counseling and support. They could consider looking out for flags and triggers for risks that require action, be ready to provide ongoing training options and other types of support, and help workers explore new opportunities before disruption strikes. Moreover, to be able to benefit from retaining their talent, employers should invest in training and reskilling efforts to prepare their workforce for change (see sidebar “Emerging examples of ongoing worker support”).

What interventions can this insight inspire?

Supporters of job seekers can take the following actions:

  • Over the next six to 12 months, encourage workers from Origin jobs to consider Gateways and the full set of good, viable occupations with the highest likely demand. In parallel, build their readiness for the rest of the 77 Gateways, for which opportunities will grow as the economic recovery gains momentum in 2022.
  • To meet hiring needs for Gateway occupations and other good, viable jobs, enlist employers to draw on their employees who are experienced job seekers and to arm them with the ability to conduct outreach, interviews, selection, and post-hire development in a way that values training or know-how gained through experience.
  • Using skills-based hiring practices, recruit unemployed workers from Origin roles to move to Gateway positions and other good, viable occupations that have immediate hiring needs.
  • Facilitate collaboration between employers and training providers to identify and deliver the targeted training and other wraparound support that would make experience-based job candidates viable for Gateways and other good, viable jobs in the next six to 12 months.
  • Track monthly the leading indicators of hiring trends by occupation, adjusting the prioritized good, viable and Gateway occupations as the recovery progresses.
  • Define new operating models for engaging job seekers on an ongoing basis, to help them navigate ongoing automation risks and other disruptions. These will vary by worker-serving organization, training provider, employer, union, and other type of institution (for example, programs devoted to longer-term career or professional coaching and support in addition to near-term job coaching).
  • Accelerate investments in institutional capacity and capability to make these new, ongoing support models feasible (for example, sustainable funding models for wraparound support services to job seekers, including longer-term career coaching).

4. Make healthcare, industrials, and cross-sector digital job progressions more accessible

Our analysis highlights two industries of substantial importance for the next 12 months: healthcare and industrials (comprising manufacturing and construction). Both industries pose a conundrum: while they are the likeliest to see growth—not just generically but in the jobs that matter to people without a bachelor’s degree—they also face some of the thorniest challenges related to job access and advancement.

In addition, although the information sector will not have as much growth or as large an upside as the occupations most accessible to workers from Origins (growth likely is skewed toward more advanced, high-tech occupations), computer-user support specialists and software-quality-assurance engineers and testers, among other digital roles, will be in high demand, and these positions are available in virtually every sector of the economy.

Healthcare: By far the most growth in good, viable jobs in 2021 will be in the healthcare industry, ranging from Gateway roles such as registered nurses, 26 licensed vocational nurses, and dental hygienists to other good jobs such as emergency medical technicians and paramedics and healthcare support workers (Exhibit 11). Indeed, driven by an aging US population, healthcare is on a long trajectory of job growth that has been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Healthcare will have by far the greatest demand for good, viable jobs during the coming year.
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The challenge is that healthcare occupations require a great deal of job-specific preparation. First, allied health roles require extensive training and certification—and thus time and money. The state-by-state variations in certifications, licensing, and other requirements present further complications. Furthermore, the industry is marked by persistent occupational segregation: research shows that Black and Latinx workers—and particularly Black women—face structural impediments to advancing to mid-level and higher-level roles. 27

Industrials: After healthcare, the next five industries are similar to one another in terms of likely growth in good, viable jobs. However, the industrials industry (comprising manufacturing and construction in Exhibit 11) has a wild-card upside that other industries do not: a major federal-infrastructure or climate-spending program could massively boost growth in good, viable industrials jobs—ranging from first-line supervisors and those in construction trades to operating engineers and industrial-machinery mechanics. What makes industrials tricky over time, however, is that it historically has generated few Gateways.

That said, job seekers from Origins can access very attractive jobs in industrials—not least in construction trades such as plumbing, pipe fitting, and welding. These can be a route to exciting and economically appealing careers. In addition, the future could hold new promise, as investment in infrastructure could lead to not only expansion of current job progressions but also the creation of new, more digitally oriented occupations and progressions within industrials.

Cross-sector digital roles: While the information sector has less potential than some other sectors for growth of good, viable jobs for experience-based job seekers, that doesn’t mean that IT and digital jobs are irrelevant to those workers. On the contrary, some of the good, viable occupations that are likely to have the greatest growth are IT and digital roles—for example, software-quality-assurance engineers and testers and telecommunications-engineering specialists.

Demand exists for these roles not merely in the information sector but also across many other sectors, including healthcare and industrials. Their broad relevance reflects the sizable (and accelerating) digitization that is underway in every sector of the economy. History suggests that these digital roles are highly accessible to workers from Origin occupations, but challenges lurk: in particular, lower-wage job seekers often don’t have the time, funds for hardware, or access to reliable, affordable internet connectivity to take advantage of the digital-skills training options available. In addition, employers may not yet be aware of the viability of filling these roles with workers without a bachelor’s degree (but with the relevant experience or targeted training).

Sidebar

The challenges presented by these opportunity areas are not insurmountable. Given the hiring opportunities at stake, it is worth considering focused public-, private-, and social-sector investment in expanding access to opportunities in these sectors (see sidebar “Emerging examples of training and career-development support”).

What interventions can this insight inspire?

Employers, government agencies, and others supporting job seekers can take the following actions.

In healthcare:

  • Focus on making it easier for job seekers without a four-year degree to access a variety of Gateway healthcare occupations and other good, viable roles, given the significantly growing demand (for example, provide financial support for training, employer sourcing, and hiring commitment).
  • Expand employment and relevant training opportunities for Origin workers from other industries to enter the healthcare field and be successful on a long-term career track in the sector, potentially leveraging their existing people-oriented skills.

In industrials:

  • Build awareness of career trajectories in the trades and inform workers of the nature of these jobs, including that many don’t involve heavy physical work or challenging physical environments.
  • Focus on investing in and formalizing career progressions that unlock economic mobility through construction, production, and maintenance routes, including on-the-job training in technology to keep workers’ abilities current and relevant.
  • In parallel, enable more job seekers to enter the trades via earn-and-learn accessible routes, such as ARPs and registered apprenticeship programs, as well as employer-specific support for reentering adults who choose a career in industrials (for example, providing transportation when jobs aren’t near urban or minority-centric neighborhoods).

Supporting recovery: Taking action on the front lines

The four insights discussed in the previous section are meant to inform action that focuses on where there might be new job possibilities for unemployed people without a four-year degree. While this analysis is national in scope, it offers a framework for understanding local labor markets and sharpening the actions to be taken in local communities.

The Alliance was formed expressly to support organizations that serve job seekers on the front lines. As such, this report is a beginning—to equip employers and worker-serving institutions with the capabilities and tools to better engage the significant postpandemic pool of experienced workers and job seekers.

Making insights usable

We have developed some tools that make the analyses described in this report usable on the front lines. One resource is a Rework Community Insights Monitor (RCIM), 28 which allows local decision makers to analyze the landscape of Origins, Gateways, and Targets at a city or regional level and decide where to invest resources to ensure the most opportunity for unemployed workers in a given place. It can also be used interactively to understand the range and availability of these occupations in particular regions.

Overview of RCIM and Job Progression Tool
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Another resource is a Job Progression Tool, 29 which provides those who serve unemployed workers with data on job progressions, Gateways, Targets, demand, risk, skills, and local job postings, thereby enabling users to discuss career opportunities with job seekers. We co-created the tool with coaches and career navigators, designing it to reflect the reality of how they engage job seekers from day to day.

Overview of RCIM and Job Progression Tool
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Partnering with worker-serving organizations and employers

We have also developed digital training modules 30 for career coaches about how to provide job seekers with skills-based, human-centered, and equity-driven career guidance. The logic of and examples from this report are woven into the fabric of the training.

We are also working with employers to understand their most important hiring needs; identify where those needs intersect with the good, viable jobs relevant to job seekers without a four-year degree; and provide toolkits 31 to help employers more effectively source and hire those job seekers based on their experience. Developed with input from leading employers and small businesses, these resources also help employers adopt more equitable hiring practices that open up opportunities for more workers.

Initial testing of insights

We have begun initial deployment of these insights and the assets of the Alliance collaboration in seven locations: Atlanta, Austin, Denver, Minneapolis/St. Paul, and the Finger Lakes region of New York, as well as the states of Indiana and Colorado. These communities were selected based on the number of low-income, unemployed job seekers; the presence of our partners; the opportunity to make strides on racial equity; and the prospect of real hiring opportunities for Gateway and Target roles—including in healthcare and industrials. Our objective is to help workers access better jobs and improve job progressions, and we aim to reach it through the following strategies:

  • helping to better align education and training offerings to the needs of their economies and in the service of good, viable career progressions
  • empowering job coaches to elevate meaningful career progressions for job seekers
  • providing incentives for employers to value experience as much as traditional credentials and create wider, more racially inclusive practices to engage a broader workforce
  • increasing overall economic mobility within these communities

Sidebar

The Rework America Alliance is dedicated to aiding unemployed workers from low-wage occupations secure good jobs as the country comes out of this economic crisis. This report makes clear that these workers have experience that is of enormous value to growing occupations and proposes near-term and longer-term means of helping workers secure those good jobs.