In February 2021, Workforce Matters invited Byron Auguste, CEO and Co-Founder of Opportunity@Work and LaShana Lewis, CEO of L.M. Lewis Consulting and a technologist who also works on diversity, equity and inclusion in tech, to join our Steering Committee for a conversation about STARs -- the 70+ million adults in the U.S. labor force that are Skilled Through Alternative Routes such as community college, workforce training, bootcamps, certificate programs, military service or on-the-job learning, rather than through a college degree.  Gayatri Agnew, Senior Director of Corporate Philanthropy at and Co-Chair of the Workforce Matters Steering Committee, moderated.  We are excited to share some of the highlights and learnings from our time together.

Gayatri - I wanted to open by sharing a bit about how the concept of being Skilled Through Alternative Routes, or STARs, has influenced the philanthropic strategy at and how we think about economic mobility and equity.

Six years ago at, we set out to think about how we could facilitate greater pathways to mobility for frontline working adults who had less than a college degree. Thanks to the work of LaShana and Byron and many others, we are now able to simply say that we are trying to facilitate greater economic mobility in the United States for STARs.

By making that statement, we're telling folks a bunch of things that are incredibly important to our strategy. We're talking about a cohort of learners who have historically been left behind from traditional education systems, not for any lack of their ability or capacity, but for the inequity with which our system was designed. We're also telling folks something really explicit about equity, as these STARs are also over-represented in historically marginalized communities.  In our strategy, we are taking it upon ourselves to help internal and external audiences understand who STARs are, what their unique journeys have looked like, and how understanding their journeys can influence our grantmaking and philanthropy.

With that in mind, LaShana, I’d like to start by asking you to give us some background about your career journey and what it means to you to be a STAR.

LaShana - I grew up in East St. Louis, Illinois in the 1970s in a very challenging environment.  During this period, you might know, East St. Louis was about 98% African-American.  Many people who came from the South for factory work were now out of work because a lot of these factories had closed.  I grew up in the projects and saw gangs, drugs, and everything in between.

Fortunately I had a strong, resilient mother who kept on me and always told me, "You can become more than what your surroundings and your environment give to you." She pushed me to try non-traditional things. I developed a knack and an interest in electronics while helping my step-dad fix old school TVs. I had a high school teacher that recognized my interest and talent and encouraged me to get into computer programming.

In college, I decided to major in computer science.  However, after 3.5 years of hustling, getting scholarships, being far from home, and frankly, facing pushback from people who didn’t seem to want me there, I came home and tried to look for a job in computers.  It was 1998, and everyone was worried about Y2K coming up, so I thought I’d be in good shape. Well, I looked for jobs ceaselessly, and I never got anyone to contact me back. Not one person.

I ended up taking a job as a van driver for an after school program. When their computer science tutor left the organization, I was asked to temporarily step in to help out with the program because of my background. After several semesters doing that work, I asked my employer if I could have the tutor job, which paid more, since I was already doing it.  I was told that because I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree, they wouldn’t hire me. And at the same time, they expected me to keep doing the tutoring job--just for less pay.

So that was my first experience with this concept of STARs that Opportunity@Work talks about --being Skilled Through Alternative Routes--and yet not being recognized or compensated for it.

Gayatri - Thank you for sharing your story, LaShana.  That really brings this concept to life in a concrete way.  Shifting over to Byron, help us understand our current labor market through the lens of STARs.  Why should we be paying attention to this group of individuals?

Byron - More than 70 million Americans are STARs. They include people of all ages. They don't have bachelor's degrees, but they do have skills. And how do we know they have skills? Some of them have been through training programs and have certificates and credentials.  But for most of them, we know they have skills because they are working, and you need skills to work.

We’ve done some research to map the skills required for basically every job in America, and we discovered that of the 70+ million STARs, 5 million of them are already doing high-wage work of the sort that so many people think they can't do, in roles that usually screen STARs out. We call them “Shining STARs”.  Shining STARs earn more than twice the median wage in America.

30 million of the 70+ million STARs are Rising STARs.  They are in low-wage jobs but are doing jobs that require a skill set that is very, very close to the skill set required for jobs that pay at least 50% more than the job they're in.  So here's the thing, a low-wage job is often assumed to be a low-skill job, but it's not necessarily true. Here's what all low-wage jobs have in common, they don't pay very much. Many low-wage jobs are actually middle-skill jobs; they're just not middle-wage jobs.

LaShana - That’s right.  After I left the after school program, I got into doing IT help desk work, customer service work, and I did that for almost 20 years.  While I was doing this work, I started volunteering to learn more about systems engineering and servers.  I helped create a database.  I helped with a server migration.  I did some coding.  I took on additional tasks.  I had all these specialized skills, and I was still being paid as a customer service representative.

Byron - Exactly.  The workforce development system very reasonably focuses a lot on the remaining 36 million “Forming STARs” who have meaningful skills gaps that may be addressed by training and apprenticeship.  But I just want to be really clear. There are 30 million Rising STARs, as I said, who already have the skills to do middle-skill work. They may need orientation, acculturation, or maybe even training in a specific platform or coding language.  But they have the skills and ability to do these jobs, and that is a massive opportunity right now.

As we've been digging further into this data also by race and gender, the gaps we are seeing are very significant. Focusing on Black STARs--I mentioned that 5 million, or 7%, of STARs are high wage. Yet only 2% of Black STARs have high wage jobs. Our second study, Navigating with the STARs, looked at 130 million job transitions. We found that overall, people with bachelor’s degrees move upward more easily and downward less frequently overall, but Black STARs are only half as likely to move upward in wages along those skills vectors as are white STARs.

So this is not a skills mix issue; this is a racial disparity issue. As a result here's what you get. Rising STARs comprise 30 million people, or 42% of all STARs. But guess what? 62% of Black STARs are rising STARs. Why is that? Because Black STARs are disproportionately those who like LaShana have middle to higher skills, but lower to middle wages. This is a result - to a large degree - of systemic racism.

But the flip side of systemic racism is a massive talent arbitrage opportunity, where over 6 million Black Americans with middle-skills who could earn more are working in lower-wage jobs and not advancing; and the workforce system honestly pays next to no attention because they've got jobs. If you want to talk about actual economic mobility, economic opportunity, building community wealth over time, 6.2 million Black Rising STARs out of 10.2 million Black STARs overall is a huge deal. In addition, STARs matter because the category encompasses nearly two-thirds of enlisted veterans. It encompasses quite a decent share of Opportunity Youth. It encompasses a lot of groups that we care about.

LaShana - Ever since I've been successful at technology, people want to tell me that I'm one in a million. But I know I'm one of millions, to Byron’s point.

Gayatri - Okay.  Both of you have made some really convincing arguments that we--workforce development professionals, business leaders, philanthropists--we need to pay more attention to STARs.  Can you give us a prescription, if you will, for some of the things we should be doing more of? And perhaps what we should be doing less of?

Byron -  What’s pretty obvious is that the system is not working on behalf of LaShana. LaShana has been successful but not because there's some system that puts wind at her back. She's been successful because she was resilient enough, talented enough, and frankly, lucky enough. We've got to understand that with a system that actually helped you, put some wind at your back, even just a little bit at key moments, would mean many more people that could realize the kind of success that LaShana has experienced.

But I think it's also important to understand that there’s not going to be one single route to success that fits everyone. People often try to measure the success of workforce training programs by their ability to get someone from a single point A and a single point B:  Can you teach coal miners to be coders? Well, the answer is some coal miners can be coders, others can't. Some accountants can be coders, others can't. In other words, everybody can be good at something, but no one can be good at everything. People have all sorts of different talents and aptitudes, and they express them in different ways. So it’s actually an ecosystem problem. It's one that actually cannot be solved by predetermining single point A to single point B that everyone has to follow.

Another problem is that STARs are invisible and tend to get buried on platforms like LinkedIn or even in economic analysis since we often conflate skills with degree attainment or wages.  And if you have a low-wage job, the prevailing wisdom and algorithms categorize you as low-skill.  That’s what leads us to talk about a skills gap.  So it's very important to make STARs visible in the insights and data lane.

Companies also pay billions of dollars to not see STARs. They pay for applicant tracking systems that screen STARs out. They say they have a skills gap, but they're screening out 60% of people before their skills are even assessed. So STARs are literally invisible in the business workflow for hiring. And from a narrative standpoint, STARs are invisible in the culture. I cannot tell you how many times I've been talking with senior executives who “confess” that they don’t have a degree. Instead of being proud of breaking through to get to where they are, they’re sometimes ashamed of it.

LaShana - Over time, as I’ve shared my story,  I’ve heard from many people who have the same story as mine. And companies have asked me, "How do I get more people like you? What can I do to increase DEI?" From my experience, here are some things that companies can do.  They can create opportunities for people to learn about different jobs that might be related to their skill sets and break down the skills that are needed in a very digestible way.  They can create shadowing opportunities so people can see themselves in these higher paid positions and create onramps to them.  They can assess skills instead of degrees and give people an opportunity to connect their personal experiences to the job.  A lot of times people who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds like myself had to figure out a way to get ourselves to college, had to figure out a way to come back home, had to figure out a way to build their own skills with no money. That's what you really want in an employee. But companies, sometimes, they don't know how to articulate that.

Byron - Exactly right, LaShana. Let me add 3 things.  First, remove the bachelor’s degree requirement.  Second, determine on what basis you will screen people in and a way to assess their skills.  Third, look within your own frontline workforce and apply those same tools to give people a way to advance.

Gayatri - That’s great.  Let’s wrap up with a call to action for funders.  What can we be doing more of?

LaShana - I would definitely look at the data.  Look to see if Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color are faring as well as white participants in workforce programs, and question what might be missing, what might need to be added?  How are they working to help individuals translate the skills they bring to the table--as a customer service representative, as a cashier--into the critical thinking, communication, and troubleshooting skills that businesses are looking for.

Byron - First, I just want to say that there is nothing wrong with funding good training programs. In particular,  we should put dollars behind Black-led workforce training organizations and more generally organizations led by people with lived experience.  Give them more resources to do the work.  Beyond that, invest in data infrastructure to help employers see who and where STARs are.  I’m also a big believer in pay for success.  I think if an organization can get a STAR into a middle-wage job, they should get some unencumbered money for that.  Finally, I believe in funder collaboration--maybe there are some things that are harder for a specific funder to support but easier for other funders in a collaborative. Finally, a lot of this stuff shouldn’t be permanently philanthropic.  They should be supported by public policy too.  And large companies should pay for the value they receive by hiring talent from these programs.

Gayatri - Thank you so much.  We are grateful for your comments and for your engagement in this conversation.  Just a couple of puzzle pieces to pull this together. LaShana, you literally said you were doing the job but could not get the job. And Byron, I've heard you say this a million times and just want to underscore, the goal here is if you can do the job, you should get the job.  But the system intervenes in a bunch of ways that make it difficult if not impossible to get the job. And so I think the collective challenge for all of us is identifying the ways we can - through our work, our sphere of influence, our purchasing and vendor decisions - help to influence that rewiring of the labor market so that we get to “if you can do the job, you can get the job.”  And if we can do that, that is a direct path to greater equity.