College is not the path to some American dreams

August 28, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA -- On the first payday of the rest of his life, Kevin Gallagher, age 19, high school graduate, apprentice carpenter, takes home a check of $232.50.

"Taxes," he says, folding the check into the pocket of his well-worn jeans. "Taxes will kill me."

Welcome to the work world, kid. While the rest of his friends from the class of 1994 at Archbishop Ryan High School in northeast Philadelphia are going to college, Kevin Gallagher is going to work.

He is learning a trade passed down from his father and making his way into the job market without a college degree. He's hauling lumber, fetching coffee, banging nails and paying his dues in a four-year quest to become a unionized journeyman carpenter.

And he's not alone.

As late summer falls, much of America turns its attention to the nearly 1.5 million teen-agers bound to college for the first time. These are freshmen who load their hopes, CD players and much of their parents' bank accounts into cars, setting off on educational paths that many hope will lead to successful careers.

But there are nearly 900,000 others from America's high school Class of 1994 -- about 38 percent -- who are skipping college and going straight into the work force. Many of them are unknowingly at economic risk, courting what statistics show to be a downbeat work-life that could lead to a series of dead-end jobs and shrinking opportunities.

Yet those like Kevin Gallagher are willing to play the odds, confident that they have the skills necessary to make a living in America.

"College is not for me," he says. "I've always wanted to be a carpenter."

He likes to build things. He likes to work with his hands.

"The best part," he says, "is seeing what you've worked on completed."

The yearning for hard work, Kevin Gallagher says, is buried somewhere in his genes. The Gallagher family provides a snapshot of the American dream, where for two generations sweat and persistence have equaled success.

But the third generation, Kevin's generation, finds itself facing an altered American economic landscape. It's a place where even a college education is no guarantee of future success.

Kevin's grandfather, John Patrick Gallagher, born in Ireland in 1902, landed in America in 1918 and worked 40 years in the shipping department for General Electric. Even into his 80s, John Patrick would haul bricks up a ladder.

"He was my idol," Kevin says. "He was always my hero."

Kevin's father, John, went straight from high school into the Marine Corps and then into the carpenters union. For 26 years, John Gallagher has helped build many of the high-rises that dominate the Philadelphia skyline. John, 47, and his wife, Veronica, 45, have also carved out a solid middle-class life, raising a family in a well-kept split-level home in the Bustleton section of northeast Philadelphia.

But as they sit at their kitchen table, the Gallaghers worry about ++ the future of their sons: John, 24, Brian, 22, and Kevin.

"I don't think Americans realize how much the country has changed until they see their children go out in the work force, and there is nothing there for them," the father says.

John, the eldest son, has attended community college but is only now enrolled in a registered nursing program. Brian is a senior at West Chester University of Pennsylvania. He will graduate next spring with a degree in accounting and $11,000 in student loans.

"Right now, Kevin's job prospects are better than mine," Brian says. "He has a job."

Two jobs one with benefits

Actually, Kevin has two jobs: working days as a carpenter's apprentice and three nights a week as a stock clerk at Super Fresh. The grocery store job might be mind-numbing, but the pay is good -- $10 an hour -- and the benefits include health insurance.

At 6 feet 1, 185 pounds, Kevin is lean and limber, able to shrug off the aches and pains of a long, long workday. For nearly four years, Kevin harbored the idea that he would not go to college. It was only when he decided against taking the Scholastic Assessment Test that his friends realized how serious he was about pursuing a career as a carpenter. At a graduation party, they gave him gifts he might be able to use for a lifetime of work: a hammer and screwdriver.

Kevin's childhood ended when he graduated from high school )) on June 6 and told his father that he really, really wasn't interested in going to college. A month later, he passed the carpenters exam and was in the apprentice program.

"Kevin told me it would be a waste of time for him to go to college, and he told me not to waste the money" his father recalls. "I always wanted to show my sons that there were many things they could do, many ways for them to go. I wanted to show them all what was out there. College. Working.

"I'm very happy that Kevin made his own decision."

Up before dawn

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