Who Needs A Diploma?

Why the High-Tech Industry Wants Dropouts
The New York Times Magazine, March 5, 2000

A couple of years ago, just before Dan Hammans dropped out of high school, his guidance counselor told him that he would never earn more than $15,000 a year, that he would never hold a job for more than six months at a time and that, to put it plainly, he would never amount to anything. ”He pretty much told me I was a loser,” Dan says. He is sitting in his 1999 Mitsubishi Eclipse, which is fire-engine red, cost $23,000 and boasts 210 horsepower off the factory floor — though with Dan’s modifications, that’s up to 260. Dan is on his way home from a job at which he earns roughly $1,600 every two weeks, or about $25,000 more each year than a certain Mr. Sternberg of Gilbert High School in Iowa would have thought possible.

“What the heck?” Dan mutters at a passing car. “That’s a real interesting body kit. It’s got Ferrari side skirts or something.” When traffic is light (and the Eclipse running well), the drive to Richardson, where Dan lives, just outside of Dallas, takes about 15 minutes door to door, though on bad days it can take more than an hour. Commuting is one of the small annoyances Dan has learned to put up with in his new life as a computer networking engineer, though it is clearly not as frustrating as walking a mile through subzero Iowa winters to grade school. Such experiences, Dan says, help explain his preoccupation with fast cars. There is that, of course, and then there is the fact that he is 19. “I’m also fascinated by traffic patterns,” he says after being cut off by another driver. “It reminds me of fluid dynamics.”

Mr. Sternberg can perhaps be forgiven his pessimism: in the United States, 25-year-old male high school dropouts make less than $25,000 a year, on average. Their compatriots with high-school diplomas make only about $31,000, the same starting salary as college graduates with engineering degrees.

The Department of Education does not compile data for 19-year-old high school dropouts with a natural working knowledge of computer systems who teach themselves fluid dynamics in order to design airflow parts for their new cars. But perhaps they should: more and more American teenagers are forgoing college educations or even dropping out of high schools to “drop in” to jobs created by the technological revolution. “I’ve talked to some people who go to college,” says Anthony Yarbrough, 19, a network engineer who graduated from high school last year. “They say, ‘O.K., we read this book all day; we get to do a little of this.’ From what they’re telling me, I’m learning a lot more just working than I would’ve in the college system.”

Read the complete text at The New York Times.