Think of TV personality Mike Rowe, and a certain image inevitably comes to mind: a trim middle-aged man wearing a baseball cap, blue jeans, and a big grin on his face—all splotched with dirt, mud, or a combination thereof.
That untidy but cheerful image arises from Rowe's best-known role, as creator and host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs," where he profiled "people who do dirty jobs and keep our civilized life on the rails." (To see a dumBíounding list of the jobs Rowe undertook for that show, go to mikerowe.com/about-mike/resume/.) A few years after "Dirty Jobs" ended its eight-year run, he launched "Somebody's Gotta Do It" on CNN, which introduces viewers to people with unique jobs—everything from performing as a rodeo clown to manufacturing bobblehead figurines.
In both series, Rowe worked alongside the people he interviewed. Those experiences gave him a deep appreciation for the blue-collar jobs that underpin the nation's economy yet are underappreciated and often go unfilled. Determined to combat negative stereotypes about hands-on labor, in 2008 he launched the mikeroweWorks Foundation, which awards scholarships to students pursuing a career in trades like welding, refrigeration, and manufacturing. To date, the organization has given out some $3 million in grants.
Rowe, whose decidedly nonlinear career path has included (among other things) television host, product pitch man, documentary narrator, and even opera singer, writes and speaks frequently about issues like the widening skills gap, offshore manufacturing, and why millions of jobs are available despite high unemployment levels. He has twice testified before U.S. Senate committees about the challenges facing trade workers, miners, farmers, and similar professions and the importance of changing negative perceptions about blue-collar work.
In "Why Dirty Jobs Matter," his keynote address at the MHI 2015 annual conference, Rowe followed humorous tales of his experiences with a call for a national campaign to attract young people to skilled trades. After his presentation, DC Velocity Group Editorial Director Mitch Mac Donald sat down with Rowe to talk about his advocacy for blue-collar vocations. Here are some highlights from that conversation.
Q: You have entertained a lot of people, but there are some important underlying messages in the work you are doing. One of them relates to the issue of how our society, government, and media have somehow diminished the value of blue-collar labor. Why has that happened, and is there anything we can do about it?
A: I think it has happened for the same reason that our thinking on just about every major topic constantly teeters back and forth. It is very, very hard to find equilibrium in anything, it seems, so we are constantly going to be re-evaluating the definition of meaningful work, a good job, a good education.
For instance, it used to be enough to say a good education is really important, but now we have to say, what is a good education? The answer (today) is, a good education is higher education. Well, if (what you have) is not a higher education, then what is it? Is that a bad education? Well, no, we wouldn't say that, but we might say it is an alternative education. So suddenly you've got a four-year degree representing all that is good in education, and everything else getting filed under this umbrella of "alternative," which is just another way of saying "subordinate."
Q: Yes, or you say, "Well, you're just not college material," which is what Dean Wormer said to Mr. Blutarsky in the movie "Animal House."
A: And the crazy thing is that back then, when "Animal House" was taking place—in the '50s and '60s, and in real life, into the '70s—college needed a PR campaign! There weren't a lot of people aspiring to go to school, and people viewed college as something for snobby, elitist types. So colleges needed to do something to become way more egalitarian, and they did, but in the process of promoting college, we wound up diminishing a lot of other trades that today are on the ropes. Now, work is portrayed in many cases as the enemy. Work is the reason you're not as happy as you could be. You want to be happy and work less. That is what the 40-hour workweek is all about.
With the reality TV shows, that has changed a bit. It used to be all about "American Idol"; now you have "Dirty Jobs" and "Deadliest Catch." You have some other shows that actually show work more or less like it is, and that is great. But there are always two different sides struggling to cut through and be heard. At the moment, it seems to me that skilled trades, manufacturing, and transportation are great opportunities desperately in need of good PR.
Q: And desperately in need of good folks. A lot of these jobs go unfilled. Over-the-road truckers have been dealing with a driver shortage for decades, and those are good-paying jobs.
A: That is right. But how many parents today are affirmatively saying, "Kid, you know what? You would be great in a warehouse. You would be great driving a truck. You would be great with a welding torch"? They should be, because for a lot of people, that is everything a great opportunity ought to represent. It is just not being put on the table when they are making big decisions.
Q: You have commented that the folks you worked with (during "Dirty Jobs") were among the happiest people in their work that you have come across. Is that a validation of what you're talking about?
A: Well, for me it was a surprise, because I showed up with all the bias and prejudice that defines my life. Like a lot of people, I would imagine that a guy riding shotgun on a garbage truck would be dreaming about doing something better. What I found was a lot of guys in sanitation who looked forward to their work, who loved the business of doing what they did, and who were—never mind not apologizing for it—eager to brag about it. That is the thing that took me aback. I was surprised by how many people I met who were unapologetically proud, almost gleeful, to be sexing chickens, or working in a sewer, or repairing water towers or the skyscrapers in New York.
Q: In "Dirty Jobs," you worked in all 50 states and performed 300 jobs. Did you touch the logistics world in any of those roles?
A: Well, not to be glib, but I can't think of a "dirty job" that didn't touch logistics. Some of them hit it on the head pretty hard. Yes, I have done long-distance trucking. I have worked in all kinds of factories and warehouses. Finding the person in the supply chain who is doing a critical but completely invisible thing—that was my mission and then to treat that person like Brad Pitt. And spend a day figuring out exactly what it is they did. The supply chain is such a great place to do that because it requires so many different links. It truly is a chain.
Q: There is some very important work you do that folks who have seen you on TV might not be aware of, and that is running the mikeroweWorks Foundation. Tell us a little bit about that.
A: "Dirty Jobs" was a hit and I did very well by it. When the economy really turned in '08, '09, and '10, the things I noticed more than anything were "help wanted" signs. The headlines in the papers were about 12- to 15-percent unemployment, but everybody I saw was struggling to find talent. It just seemed like two different narratives were going on at the same time in the country, and the unemployment narrative was getting all the press.
The skills gap wasn't (being recognized), so my foundation started as a PR campaign to shine a light on good jobs that actually existed. It then morphed into an attempt to reward people who wanted to learn a skill that was actually in demand. So we award Work Ethic scholarships today. It is interesting to me that we have scholarships that reward academic achievement, athletic achievement, talent, and, of course, need. What we don't have are scholarships that reward work ethic. Who is affirmatively looking for the kid who wakes up early, stays late, is willing to relocate, is willing to volunteer for the scut work? Those are the people I have met day in and day out on the show, and those are the people and that is the behavior I choose to reward.
Q: Skills and cultural fit are important. But if people are not coming into jobs with a work ethic, they probably aren't going to be the kind of employees you want them to be.
A: I know it is very Horatio Alger and old school, but I still say it. I don't care if you are at a McDonald's. I don't care what warehouse you are in. Show up early. Find your boss and say, "What do you need?" I mean every couple of hours. Not like a total suck-up, but make your presence known. Volunteer for a hard thing. Within six months, you will be elevated. Within a year, you are going to be "The Guy," and if you want to run the joint in a couple of years ... I have seen it happen so many times.
Attitude, work ethic—those are the things we wind up bemoaning after the fact and try to instill after we have made the hire. It is entirely backward.
Q: I think that is a gene that you're either born with or you're not.
A: Maybe so, but I would also argue that it is a choice. I have seen a lot of people who have looked around and just concluded that, all things considered, it's easier to sit home and play video games. Somebody else is going to take care of me. I don't want to sound like a scold because honestly, in my life, there was a time when if you said "I'll give you this much for doing nothing, and this much or maybe a little less for working 50, 60 hours a week," I might have hesitated too. We just have to set the table differently, and we have to encourage the kind of behavior that we truly want to reward.
Q: Where can people find out more about the foundation?
A: At mikerowe.com. It is still a lot about PR, but you will see our partners that are involved in work-force recruitment. You can apply for a scholarship there. You can ask me questions there. I try and stay available, and we try and keep the conversation lively.
Editor's note: To watch a video of the complete interview with Mike Rowe, go to www.dcvelocity.com/MikeRowe.