A lot of people have had the experience of applying for a job that involves tasks they haven’t done before, but probably could learn how to do, given the chance. A salesperson tries for a managerial position despite not having run a team before; a graphic designer applies to a job that involves animation, trusting that they’ll be able to master the new skill. That’s how people often move up to roles with higher pay—at least in the white-collar world.

That’s now how it typically works for “low-skilled workers,” perhaps in part because of the phrase itself.

How we refer to a group of people can shape their circumstances. Consider the difference between “illegal aliens” and “undocumented people,” or between “migrants” and “refugees.” The policy implications for groups like these can vary with the amount of empathy and dignity we show them.

There’s not much dignity in being referred to as a “low-skilled” or “unskilled” worker. But these phrases get bandied about so easily in economics, politics, and the press that it’s easy to miss that they’re insults.

The terms refer to people who serve and prepare food, stock shelves, care for children and the elderly, and keep schools and hospitals clean—that is, necessary and difficult work, of the kind that’s frequently undervalued and underpaid.

Not everyone can do these jobs

It’s true that these jobs don’t require advanced degrees. But it’s also a stretch to suggest (as the phrase “low-skilled” implies) that anyone can do them. It takes enormous physical and mental stamina to, say, pick cherries by hand. There’s plenty of skill involved in waiting tables: remembering orders, maneuvering gracefully between crowded tables, handling entitled customers as they gripe over the fact that there’s too much ice in their water. And any parent can attest that it requires a lot of skill to keep a whole group of young children safe, healthy, and entertained.

People in these jobs often become better at them with time and experience, while others may give them a try and find that they’re not cut out for the work. Yet the phrase implicitly upholds the status quo of employers paying their staff often sub-living wages—after all, if any person can do the job, and workers are endlessly abundant and replaceable, then why bother with benefits or a better salary?

A new way of thinking about jobs

new working paper, posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, proposes a different moniker for the workers often referred to as low-skilled: STARS, or “skilled through alternative routes.” This term is tied to the solutions the authors propose for addressing income inequality in the US.

STARS, according to the paper, are “individuals who are at least 25 years old, graduated from high school, and have skills and work experience, but don’t hold a four-year college degree.”  Instead, they might have gained skills through community college, military service, credentialing programs, and, of course, on-the-job learning.

The goal in using the term STARS is to counteract the biases toward workers in positions frequently considered to be low-prestige, thereby expanding the range of possible roles for which they might be qualified. “By using the STARs language, you begin to think of talent outside of the limiting parameters of degree and non-degree,” say authors Peter Blair, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University; Papia Debroy, senior vice president of insights at Opportunity@Work; and Justin Heck, a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Michigan.

The paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed, is concerned with ways to give STARs more upward mobility.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best thing low-wage workers can do to increase their earning power is to get a college degree. After all, median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders in the US are more than twice as high as those with no more than a high school diploma, and 70% higher than those with an associate’s degree, as of 2018, according to research published by the Brookings Institution. The same research shows that at their career peak (around 30 years since entering the workforce), the median annual earnings for four-year degree holders is $68,000, compared to $35,000 for those with only a high school education.

The opportunity gap

Certainly getting more education is one way to improve earning potential. But “it shouldn’t be the only pathway to this opportunity,” the STARS researchers say. Blair, Debroy, and Heck suggest there’s another way to give STARS more career mobility, and that’s by changing employers’ assumptions about which workers deserve the opportunity to learn new skills on the job.

“Our work finds that throughout the labor market, workers with bachelor’s degrees are given unique access to higher-paying jobs where they can earn and learn simultaneously,” the authors write. While all workers are able to get new jobs at similar skill levels as their previous jobs, “STARs experience more friction transitioning to higher-wage work than do workers with bachelor’s degrees.”

This “opportunity gap,” the researchers say, helps drive income inequality. In other words, one reason for the significant wage gap between college graduates and those without bachelor’s degrees lies in employers’ hesitance to bet on the latter group’s ability to succeed in a different kind of role.

As one illustration of the financial consequences of the opportunity gap, the paper looked at the wages of a group of Americans who were 25 years old in 1986. Workers with only high school diplomas were 55 years old before they earned as much as the college graduates did at age 25 when they were just starting out.

The flawed signal of four-year degrees

Why is it that employers are more willing to take a chance on people with bachelor’s degrees? The authors say that degree requirements have become a convenient way for employers to sort through job applicants, where a college education is seen as a signal of a person’s potential.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether a college degree is a particularly good signal of workers’ aptitude or more of a sign of the candidate’s race and income level. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 35% of white Americans had a college degree or higher by age 25, compared to 21% of Black Americans and 15% of Hispanic Americans,.

When it comes to the connection between educational attainment and family income, 60% of US high school graduates in the top quartile of income graduated from college eight years later, compared to 15% in the bottom quartile, according to a 2016 report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education. The problem with making degrees a qualification for jobs that don’t really need them lies in “how many talented workers the degree requirement is leading [employers] to overlook,” as the study’s authors explain.

A more equitable and practical solution would be for employers to stop placing so much emphasis on bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite, and instead, open up more opportunities for less-educated workers to learn on the job when they’re applying for roles that pay higher wages.

The importance of learning on the job

So what will it take to make these opportunities a reality? There are specific company policy changes that would help. The authors suggest possible options including “removing degree requirements and intentionally sourcing and recruiting STARs”—both from lower-paying jobs within the organization, and from outside the company.

But part of the work will involve bringing about a mindset shift among employers. “Most workers are hired into positions without the full set of skills to perform the job well on day one,” the authors write. Rather, “[m]any of the skills needed to do the job well are learned by working alongside more experienced peers and through the act of doing the job.”

Meanwhile, the fallacy of undervaluing STARS workers has been on full display throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. People with no education beyond a high-school degree have made up the majority of essential workers, in sectors ranging from food service to transportation to healthcare, according to estimates by the nonprofit Opportunities@Work.

The difficulties of life under lockdown during the pandemic, not to mention the risks that many service workers were required to undertake, made the importance of grocery-store workers and delivery drivers impossible to ignore. “It should be obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that there’s no such thing as unskilled labor—that low-wage work is as essential and integral to daily life as the labor performed by accountants or lawyers,” Sarah Jones wrote for New York Magazine in April 2020.

As many employers struggle to hire a sufficient number of workers in food service, retail, and other roles now understood as essential, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s time to change not just the way that society refers to workers in this group, but the way it treats them.

As mass vaccination rolled out in the late spring and COVID-19 cases began to decline precipitously, Americans and the companies they work for began to envision a return to normalcy.

Masking guidance was lifted for the vaccinated and plans were made for bringing employees who had the privilege of working from home through the crisis back into offices after more than a year of remote work -- in many cases adopting a hybrid model that attempted to balance business needs, personal lives and safety.

But the rapid spread of the delta variant, largely among the unvaccinated, has overwhelmed hospital systems and cast uncertainty on those plans, halting many in their tracks.

In announcements that followed each other like dominoes, a slew of major U.S. corporations -- from Amazon to McDonald's -- in recent weeks have pushed back their September office reopening targets.

In light of these mounting uncertainties, experts say organizational leaders are at a "pivotal" moment and must put workers at the center of their longer-term planning in order to build business resilience. The push to return to the status quo is no longer acceptable to many and an increase in choices, including the ability to work remotely, has upped the stakes for employers.

With a smooth return to "normal" after Labor Day no longer looking feasible, how organizations navigate recalling millions of workers still recouping from the collective anguish of a once-in-a-century pandemic could have a costly impact on retention at a time when job openings and quit rates are both at record highs.

"I would argue that for business leaders, it's a pivotal moment for them, and they need to put their employees at the center of their workplace strategy," Steven Hatfield, the head of Deloitte’s Global Future of Work team, which counsels some 90% of firms on the Fortune 500, told ABC News.

'Permanently altered' the employee-employer relationship

According to Hatfield, the pandemic has "permanently altered the nature of the employer-employee relationship."

Many companies had required their employees to come in five days a week and now, after more than a year of remote work, the workweek and other aspects of the relationship are on the table. Hybrid, permanent remote and flexible arrangements have become a regular part of the conversation.

"We believe that the secret for organizations today is they have to acknowledge the nature of the changing dynamics in terms of that relationship. They need to acknowledge that workers do have more choice and more power."

That level of choice is manifesting itself in "skill shortages, the labor shortages, the way in which people are picking up and moving to different jurisdictions based on where their heart is," he added.

"And other factors -- 'promote' job postings on LinkedIn is up 5x," he said, referring to companies paying extra to make sure their postings are seen.

As the nation begins to emerge from the pandemic, fresh data indicates that people are leaving their jobs at record levels. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) said earlier this week that the "quits rate" in June was 2.7% -- tying with April 2021 for the highest rate since its record-keeping on it began. Moreover, the number of job openings hit a record high of 10.1 million in June, the BLS said in its latest release. The layoffs and discharge rate, meanwhile, was at a record low of 0.9% in both May and June.

Economists have attributed these trends to both competitive labor market conditions as employers vie for workers with increased flexibility offerings, as well as harder-to-quantify reasons as many people reassess their life and career goals following the shock of a global pandemic that left more than 600,000 Americans dead.

The pandemic also spurred droves of women to leave the workforce entirely, alarming trend experts warned could undo years of hard-fought gains towards gender equity in the private sector. This mass exodus of women in the workforce has been linked to uneven caregiving responsibilities at home as schools and daycares sporadically shuttered throughout the course of the pandemic.

As delta now rages, many parents are also grappling with how to protect their unvaccinated children amid a push to reopen.

"What’s going on with the Delta variant is basically just another data point telling us that returning to the status quo and going back to the office, expecting people to be there full time, everyday, face-to-face is just not going to cut it," Mabel Abraham, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, told ABC News.

"I don't think anyone would argue that we can replace face-to-face interactions wholly with being online, I'm certainly Zoomed-out," she added. "There's always going to be a place for that face-to-face dynamic, whether it looks the same as it did pre-pandemic is a different question. Do we necessarily need everybody to be in the office, every single day, for eight to ten hours a day? Probably not."

'Be adaptable' and listen to employees

Abraham said this constantly-changing environment is demanding that employers -- and employees -- be nimble and adaptable to a degree that has not previously been demanded.

Organizational leaders "need to be thinking less about a formal plan, and more about how to be adaptable as the environment continues to change," Abraham said.

Abraham said that simply giving people options can be a strategy for being adaptable. This starts by listening to employees who voice concerns -- such as exposing family members to the virus or commuting difficulties -- and setting up a workplace that offers flexible options.

Some 42% of current remote workers say if their current company does not continue to offer remote work options long term, they will look for a job at a company that does, according to Prudential’s Pulse of the American Worker Survey released earlier this year.

"Employers who aren't listening are in some ways just being naive in thinking that their employees won't move," Abraham said. "In this current environment, for many people, the pandemic looms large and it really is a concerning factor where going back to the office might mean that that person is willing to forego their position, even if they're getting the benefits and the pay and enjoying the work and liking their co-workers."

"Employers just need to recognize that when employees voice these concerns, it probably takes a lot for them to speak up, so if they're bringing it up it's because they're probably really concerned about it," she added. "And making a decision to not offer options, not to offer flexibility, needs to come with the understanding that that person might actually leave."

Her recent research also found that organizations with female leadership and which signal that they care about equity in the workplace are much more likely to attract women applicants at a time when many firms have had great difficulties retaining their female staff.

"With all of the dialogue around women exiting at an even higher rate than men during this time, really thinking about if we want to counter that force in any way, organizations need to think carefully about how this solution will also have this additional benefit of really retaining their top female talent," she said.

Looking out for workers 'good for business

Deloitte's Hatfield added that while many still think about productivity in "first-industrial-revolutionary terms," looking out for your employees' health and well-being is actually "good for business, too."

"We need to reshape our ideas around productivity to be akin to the marketplace that exists now, so your performance as a human, your well-being as a human, really matters," Hatfield added, "and it matters to boost the productivity for the organization."

For businesses, Hatfield said that "It makes more sense for organizations to focus on up-skilling and re-skilling their workforce than trying to find workers."

If organizational leaders are more attuned to the needs of their employees and supportive of their career growth, this can help build a resilient workforce within an organization despite a myriad of external factors that leaders cannot control.

The present environment also presents a unique opportunity for employees to express what they need in order to do their work better and to more seamlessly support the work of an organization -- whether it's a stipend for a better home office setup, more flexibility options, or a better understanding of the purpose in the work they do.

"But, I think it's incumbent on the workforce itself to be vocal about what some of those things might be in order to help the organizations they work with navigate change," Hatfield said.

The more organizational leaders engage and pay attention to their workers, the more they can also avoid falling into a "trap" of attempting to appease by offering unrelated perks -- like an office ping pong table "that's going to gather dust," Hatfield said.

"Do what's going to be classic," he said. "Do the things that are going to have enduring power, both for the organization and for the workforce -- so things like focusing on the potential of their work, and focusing on how they develop and ensuring that what their workforce is doing is really meaningful."