CASPER, Wyo. - Steven Phillips dropped out of Natrona County High School as a senior. He was struggling in class and a year behind on his schoolwork. His parents were not pleased.
"When I turned 18, I wanted to be out on my own," he said recently.
Moving out wouldn't be possible if he kept going to school. So Phillips dropped out and went to work in Wyoming's oil fields. He's been working in the energy industry ever since.
Nationally, a person who furthers their education can expect to earn more money than someone who does not. The average salary for a person with a bachelor's degree was $48,997 for the three years between 2009 and 2011, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Communities Survey. A high school graduate made $26,957 and a high school dropout made $19,013.
But in Wyoming that equation is complicated by the abundance of high-paying energy sector jobs that do not require college degrees or, in some cases, high school diplomas. Phillips is an example.
He went to work in the oil fields for Sinclair Oil Corp. as a 17-year-old high school dropout. He said he earned $12 an hour and worked 80-hour weeks. He moved to Halliburton after about a year, where his job was to cement drill casing in place. It paid $15 an hour and Phillips averaged around $4,000 in monthly take-home pay.
After 1 1/2 years, he went to work at a uranium mine where he took a pay cut. He averaged $3,800 in monthly take-home pay, but worked fewer hours, affording him more time to be home with his recently born daughter.
"Honestly, up to this job, every job I had in the oil fields I was making pretty great money and they didn't require a GED," Phillips said.
Phillips, 21, now works for Cameron Surface Systems. The company requires employees to have at least a GED and gave Phillips six months to earn his, which he is in the process of doing at Casper College's Adult Learning Center. The new job pays better than previous gigs, he said.
"Now this company is saying, 'Hey man you need to get it,'" he said. "It's a good thing in my eyes."
Like their national counterparts, Wyomingites with more education tend to earn more than those with less. The average salary for a Wyomingite with a graduate degree was $56,953 between 2009 and 2011, according to the American Communities Survey. Bachelor's degree holders earned $45,906 while high school graduates made $30,660 and high school dropouts earned $21,942.
Far more high school dropouts made between $19,240 and $23,919 (11,010 people) than between $47,319 and $59,799 (1,554) in 2011, according to the Department of Workforce Services research and planning section.
But the picture becomes more complicated when one compares Wyoming to the rest of the county. Wyoming high school dropouts and high school graduates earn more than their national counterparts. Meanwhile, graduate and bachelor's degree holders earn less than the national average.
Then there is this: In 2011, there were more people with high school diplomas (9,565) in the $59,799 and $74,879 wage bracket than people with bachelor's degrees (7,623), according to the data from the office of research and planning. And there were more people without high school diplomas (3,337) in the $37,959 to $47,319 wage bracket than people with bachelor's degrees (3,101).
"There is an opportunity with a high school diploma to make a good wage," said Tony Glover, chief economist at the office of research and planning. "But it involves labor-intensive work, more hours, more time away from your family."
Rick Deephouse is one such example. He dropped out of Natrona County High School in 10th grade and got a job working construction. He, too, now works for Cameron Surface Systems and, like Phillips, is working on his GED.
"I hated going to school," Deephouse said. "Sitting all day, I didn't make any money doing that. My parents said if I got a full-time job I could drop out."
He did and went on to earn $18 an hour working for Carr Construction. Deephouse makes more money at Cameron now, though he acknowledged that was largely because he works more hours. He has been working as much as 100 hours in a week.
"I make excellent money right now," he said.
Two educators interviewed for this story said they saw little correlation between Wyoming's dropout rates and the opportunity for oil field work.
Mark Mathern, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Natrona County School District, said it is rare for a student to leave high school for a job in the oil fields.
"A lot of these jobs are more and more technical," Mathern said. "Whether it's running a backhoe or being a drill hand on a drilling rig, those are fairly sophisticated (skills) that these kids need to have."
In past years, a booming coal industry did prompt some students to leave school for the mines, said Boyd Brown, associate superintendent for instruction for the Campbell County School District. Coal isn't as strong now, and most employers in Campbell County prefer students to finish high school before heading to work, he said.
Both said it is important for schools to stress technical education, which can help students see the connection between their education and future employment. Making that connection can be an important factor in keeping some students from dropping out, they said.
Mathern listed two classes offered by Natrona County schools as an example. One is a new engineering class that stresses the science, math and technology skills that students may need for future employment. The other is a class that combines math and construction skills. This spring, for instance, students in that class were asked to use pre-algebra skills to help build a shed, he said.
"This is the exact kind of application that I want to see in some of this work," Mathern said. "Students are seeing the relevancy of their work."
As for Phillips, he thinks his GED will be an asset. Reading and science aren't applicable in his job, but the math and spelling skills are important. He doesn't plan on going to college.
Phillips has always regretted not getting his high school diploma. He is the only member of his family not to finish high school. If a student is close to finishing school, he or she should finish, he said.
But if a student is far behind and can find a full-time job, dropping out is as good a path as any other, he said.
"If you're wanting to make some good money, definitely drop out and make some good money in the oil field," he said.