Speaking to a convention of material handling managers, television actor Mike Rowe called for a national campaign to attract students to skilled-labor trades that are often denigrated as undesirable, "blue collar" jobs.
The message dovetailed with warnings at the Material Handling Industry (MHI)'s annual conference in Jacksonville that many warehousing managers are struggling to fill open jobs with qualified workers.
"We're lending money to kids who will never be able to pay it back, to get degrees for jobs that don't exist," Rowe said. "If we don't change the conversation, the problem you guys see with labor recruitment is going to get worse and worse, and the skills gap is going to get wider and wider."
Dressed in his trademark blue jeans and baseball cap, Rowe stood out from the business-casual attire worn by the 500 attendees, but his message resonated with the large crowd at a luncheon keynote address on Tuesday.
The solution to attracting quality candidates to open jobs in skilled labor must be a multiyear, sustained campaign similar to the antilittering effort launched in 1953 when billboards labeled "Keep American Beautiful" popped up around the country, featuring the iconic image of an Indian with a tear rolling down his cheek, he said.
In a rollicking introduction, Rowe described his evolution from working as an evening television news host in San Francisco to having a personal revelation about the dignity of hard work when he interviewed a sewer engineer who practiced skilled work habits, despite wading through sewage in a rubber protective suit.
"It was almost as if my education had started in the sewer and had continued on to the bridge, the water tower, the factory floor, the caissons," he recalled. "I was baptized in a river of crap, I had a rat intervention, and it completely changed the idea of what I did for work."
The experience inspired him to start the TV show "Dirty Jobs," which profiled "the people who do dirty jobs and keep our civilized life on the rails" and aired on the Discovery Channel from 2003 to 2011.
Shortly after the U.S. began to enter the Great Recession in 2008, Rowe got a phone call from a Wall Street Journal reporter who asked him to share his thoughts about reconciling rising unemployment numbers with a widening skills gap.
"I told him this had to do with outsourcing, infrastructure, and currency devaluation, but all those things are just symptoms of a fractured relationship with the concept of a good job," Rowe declared.
Inspired by that conversation, he created the "Mike Rowe Works Foundation," which awards scholarships to men and women who show an aptitude for mastering a specific trade. To date, students have used $3 million in grants to attend schools including the Midwest Technical Institute in Springfield, Ill., Tulsa Welding School in Tulsa, Okla., Refrigeration School Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz., and Universal Technical Institute in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"Work has really bad PR; the definition of what people think is a good job has changed," Rowe said. "The reason I started this foundation was to balance the conversation that says anything that requires a four-year college degree is a good job, but anything that doesn't is a vocational consolation prize."
Rowe says the foundation also embodies the values of his grandfather, a man with an eighth-grade education who worked as a farmer, electrician, plumber, and at any other job that was needed.
"The idea that a sheepskin is your highest and best credential is a happy fiction. Just because I have my degree doesn't mean I know my butt from a hot rock," Rowe declared. "Yes, without education it's hopeless. But we've got to find a way to lift up all the kinds of alternative education and elevate them to the same level as a four-year B.S. degree."