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With A Job, Life Improves For 9th Grade Dropout


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

This morning, we have an update on a story we first heard this past summer, as NPR aired a series about high school dropouts. In that series we heard from Kenny Buchanan. The 44-year-old dropped out when he was in the 9th grade. We met him not long after he got his GED in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

Today, Kenny has a new job and a new outlook on life. Most people in Kenny's hometown, though, are not as lucky. As NPR's Claudio Sanchez reports, well paying jobs are still scarce and businesses simply won't hire unskilled, poorly educated people.

CLAUDIO SANCHEZ, BYLINE: Kenny Buchanan dropped out of school at age 18, and for the next 26 years jumped from job to job and unemployment. Today, he says life is good.

KENNY BUCHANAN: I got a job.

SANCHEZ: A full time job.

BUCHANAN: Yep, I got hired in July. Pay is good. It's local and close to home.

SANCHEZ: Kenny was hired at Sapa, a Swedish company that took over the aluminum extrusion plant once owned by Alcoa. You can't beat having steady work, says Kenny. The anxiety and stress have lifted.

BUCHANAN: And anybody that loses their job or doesn't have a job will tell you, when you don't have the money, you're always worrying about how you're going to afford to pay this and how you're going to afford to pay for that. It gets stressful. It gets real stressful. But now that I've got a job, I'm more - more relaxed.

SANCHEZ: With Kenny now working full time, his wife Jill was able to quit her job as a beautician. She's now spending a lot more time caring for their youngest son and worrying a lot less.

JILL BUCHANAN: The biggest thing for me was having insurance for my family. That was even more important to me than the money - you know, having some health issues and that, it was hard not to have an insurance.

SANCHEZ: Without his GED, Kenny says he'd still be looking for a job. Even the fast food place that hired him back when he dropped out of high school won't hire anyone these days without a GED or a high school diploma.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Unintelligible) help you?

BUCHANAN: Yeah, I'd like two black coffees please.

SANCHEZ: Every morning on his way to work, Kenny stops by that same Burger King to get coffee.

BUCHANAN: This is the place I started. My very first job.

SANCHEZ: We drive up to the window. A woman walks in front of Kenny's car and waves.

BUCHANAN: I know her. Yeah.

SANCHEZ: Kenny says it's no longer embarrassing running into people he grew up with, people who've seen him struggle and jobless. These days he can afford to eat out maybe once a week, buy a new shirt or a blouse for his wife. Still, Kenny says hard times have taught him to be frugal.

BUCHANAN: Bills come first. The house gets paid first. The major things. You pay your major things first. Whatever's left over...

SANCHEZ: You save, says Kenny.

As we pull out of the parking lot, it's clear that the story of Schuylkill County is not nearly as upbeat as Kenny's. We drive past empty shopping centers, strip malls and old abandoned warehouses - all signs of a prolonged, struggling economy.

Although farther down the road there is a company that makes bird feed that's hiring. So is the small local lumber company. A new Kohl's department store is going to open here soon. People without a high school diploma or a GED, of course, need not apply.

But even if you have one, neither will guarantee a living wage, says Sharon Angelo. She runs Career Link, a job counseling and referral center in Schuylkill County.

SHARON ANGELO: The economy has picked up slightly. But what we're noticing too is you may have employers that pay one salary in Schuylkill County and just go across the border to another facility of theirs and find out that you could get paid more.

SANCHEZ: With so many people looking for jobs around here, Angelo says, employers don't have to offer more than the minimum wage. Kenny says that's why so many of his friends have left to find something better.

BUCHANAN: I'm not saying minimum paying jobs are bad, but if you're going to raise a family or if you want things in life, minimum paying jobs just don't cut it. I mean they just don't.

SANCHEZ: It's hard to say when or if wages will improve in this economy. But Sharon Angelo says the one thing that seems to be getting worse is the high school dropout rate. She's seeing a lot more dropouts.

ANGELO: I'm talking people who are 17 through 21 years of age. They don't have enough room to accommodate the number of people who are looking for a GED.

SANCHEZ: Angelo says for every Kenny Buchanan who has come back for his GED and found a good paying job, there are dozens of dropouts who are unemployable.

BUCHANAN: I think it's sad. I do.

SANCHEZ: Kenny says he's lucky.

BUCHANAN: You can't guarantee nothing in life. But yeah. Yeah, I'm fortunate.

SANCHEZ: He has a family that supports him, a job, and his GED.

Claudio Sanchez, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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