MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
Not so long ago, if you dropped out of high school, you could still manage to find a good blue collar job. But today the people who seem to be hurting the most in our sputtering economy are dropouts in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Despite their work experience, some can't even apply for a new job without proof that they completed high school. In his final story for our series on dropouts, NPR's Claudio Sanchez profiles a man who's thought a lot about a decision he made as a teenager.
CLAUDIO SANCHEZ: Kenny Buchanan has lived in the coal-rich mountains of Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania all his life. He's 44, talkative in a good way, and happy that he's working after being jobless for more than a year. Kenny recently found work at an aluminum manufacturing plant.
Mr. KENNY BUCHANAN: I'm a processor. In other words, we make aluminum for propane tanks, runways - aluminum runways for the United States Air Force.
SANCHEZ: It's not a permanent job yet. Kenny's still on probation. It's the eighth job he's had in the last five years. He leans forward, adjusts his baseball cap and says, with a wife and two kids it's been rough - all because of a decision he made 26 years ago.
Mr. BUCHANAN: I actually dropped out of school. Ninth grade, I dropped out of school. I was 18. I flunked twice. I had no interest. And I went home and I told my mom - since I was living with my mom at the time - I said, I'm done. I'm not going back to school.
SANCHEZ: Kenney says he didn't consider how this would limit his job prospects down the road because right after he dropped out, he got a full-time job at Burger King.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Back then, I could get a job anywhere. You know, I could work at Burger King, quit that job and have a job the next day, without an education.
SANCHEZ: Kenny says he's always been a hard worker with good references, but he's never had a steady job.
Mr. BUCHANAN: I worked in foundries, I drove forklifts, operated overhead cranes.
SANCHEZ: And in the last few years, finding work that can support a family has gotten even harder. Employers in Schuylkill County have started asking for a high school diploma.
Mr. BUCHANAN: I'd go to a different job, and there were several jobs - good-paying jobs I could have had, but because I didn't have a high school diploma, they wouldn't even consider me.
SANCHEZ: Kenny is one of 40 million Americans who never graduated from high school. According to the American Council on Education, most of these people -60 percent - are between 40 and 70 years old. Nine in 10 have never earned more than $40,000 a year. That fits Kenny to a T.
It's depressing, he says, especially when he'd run into his old high school buddies, the guys he could have graduated with. Someone would always ask...
Mr. BUCHANAN: What are you making? Seven dollars an hour. You know, and it hurts. It's embarrassing, you know?
SANCHEZ: So two years ago, Kenny did something about it. He sought help at Career Link, a state-run job training and education center for unemployed adults in Pottsville.
Unidentified Man: When you guys applied for unemployment benefits, you were laid off, work was slow...
SANCHEZ: After an orientation class like this one, Kenny realized he needed to earn the closest thing to a high school diploma: a GED. But like most adults who never finished high school, Kenny also realized his reading and math skills were not very good.
Sharon Angle, the director at Career Link, says people like Kenny need lots of help.
Ms. SHARON ANGLE (Career Link): Because when you get that GED book and you look and you see the math that's required - algebra, trig - I think that scares a lot of people, especially if they haven't been in school for 30 years.
SANCHEZ: Angle says a lot of these older dropouts give up.
Ms. ANGLE: They'll say, you know, and I'm just going to get a job here and there, pick up what I can and just hope that I make it to 62 until I can get on Social Security.
SANCHEZ: And employers who come to the center looking for workers get frustrated too, she says.
Ms. ANGLE: To be honest, they want someone that they can depend on, someone who's going to show up and give them a good day's work.
SANCHEZ: But if they don't have a high school diploma or GED, that's it - no interview, no job. Angle says that's the new corporate policy most of the businesses she deals with have adopted.
The flip side of that, of course, is that businesses are sending an important message, especially to kids: stay in school, get your diploma, and then get a job.
It's a good message, says Kenny, but boy, it couldn't have come at a worse time.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Around here there ain't a lot of jobs. Everything that gets built around here is strip malls, little strip malls, $7 an hour jobs. How can you live on $7 an hour?
SANCHEZ: Kenny says that's why the kids who are graduating from high school are leaving Schuylkill County, including his oldest son. He's thinking about college. Even Kenny's wife wants - to move to Florida, if possible. But Kenney says he's staying put.
If he's hired permanently at the aluminum plant next month, his family will finally have health insurance and enough to live on. Kenny says he's just praying the job lasts.
Mr. BUCHANAN: I'm a religious man, and when all else fails, God's always there for you. You know, I mean, he's been good to me.
SANCHEZ: If he didn't have his faith to fall back on, Kenny says, it would have been a lot easier to give up and to stay stuck, poor and miserable.
Mr. BUCHANAN: Dropping out of school, that was one of my biggest mistakes I've ever done. What I did I did, you know, but I can make things better.
SANCHEZ: Kenny believes he has made things better. He got his GED. He says his friends and family respect him for doing that. Kenny knows he may get laid off again, but he says the stigma of being a high school dropout has faded forever.
Claudio Sanchez, NPR News.