Over the last two decades, workers without four-year college degrees have lost ground in the occupations that used to be ladders to middle-class lives for them and their families.

While the trend has been well-known, putting a number on the lost steppingstone jobs has been elusive. A new study, published Friday, estimates that such workers have been displaced from 7.4 million jobs since 2000.

The research points to the persistent challenge for the nearly two-thirds of American workers who do not have a four-year college degree, even as some employers have dropped the requirement in recent years.

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“These workers have been displaced from millions of the precise jobs that offer them upward mobility,” said Papia Debroy, head of research for [email protected], the nonprofit that published the study. “It represents a stunning loss for workers and their families.”

[email protected] is part of an emerging coalition of groups that seeks to change the culture of hiring and promotion in corporate America. They are trying to encourage a shift to hiring and career development based on people’s skills rather than degrees.

Part of that effort is to create a body of research that highlights the problem but also the untapped potential of workers.

The group’s researchers analyzed employment trends across a wide variety of occupations. The jobs included business managers, nurses, software developers, sales supervisors, financial analysts, purchasing agents, industrial engineers and administrative assistants.

Had workers without college degrees maintained the share of those jobs they held in 2000, there would have been 7.4 million more of them by the end of 2019, the study concluded.

A previous study by [email protected], with academic researchers, dissected skills in different occupations and found that up to 30 million workers had the skills to realistically move to new jobs that paid on average 70% more than their current ones.

Some major companies have started to adjust their hiring requirements. Rework America Business Network, an initiative of the Markle Foundation, has pledged to adopt skills-based hiring for many jobs. Companies in the group include Aon, Boeing, McKinsey, Microsoft and Walmart.

OneTen, a nonprofit, has gathered commitments from dozens of companies to pursue the goal of hiring or promoting 1 million Black workers without college degrees to jobs with family-sustaining incomes over the next decade. The companies include Accenture, AT&T, Bank of America, Caterpillar, Delta Air Lines, IBM, JPMorgan Chase, Merck, Target and Wells Fargo.

The drive to increase workforce diversity is one motivation for the change. Screening by college degree hits minorities particularly hard, eliminating 76% of Black adults and 83% of Latino adults.

But companies and labor experts also emphasize the competitive and economic benefits of tapping a wider pool of capable workers.

“The country as a whole will benefit from not stranding human capital,” said Erica Groshen, an economist at Cornell University and a former head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

There is recent evidence that the pandemic shortage of workers may be prompting companies to loosen degree requirements. A study published this month by Keith Wardrip, a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia, compared online job listings in the five quarters before COVID hit and the five quarters after.

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