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Special Report: Manufacturing

Exclusive interview with Mike Rowe

By Gretchen Salois

Mike Rowe shows Americans there are plenty of jobs if you’re willing to change your perception

March 2017 - Do you know what it’s like to scrape up road kill? Or transport tons of putrid scraps from Las Vegas restaurants to feed pigs? Mike Rowe does. He apprenticed for those and a plethora of other professions while filming “Dirty Jobs” for the Discovery Channel. He melted scrap at a steel mill and wielded a torch. Nowadays, he’s using his celebrity to instill excitement in the next generation of career seekers by showing them opportunities that await them in the trades sector.

There is a caste system in our society that pits one profession against another. Children are encouraged to excel in their studies to ensure admission into a respectable four-year college. What’s often lost in this approach is that pursuing a degree from such institutions may not meet the needs of every student, yet a vocational education in the trades is portrayed as a less-than-ideal option. Rowe makes it his mission to understand and highlight all types of careers. Demonstrating the skills required of craftsmen and women to fill the gap in manufacturing means FFJ 0317 rowe image1changing people’s perception about what a “good” job is.

Working with your hands, building something, fixing something—is decidedly a hobbyist preoccupation—but not seriously considered a viable calling. This can be attributed to preconceived judgments that if you want a high-profile, high-paying career, you need to go into business, for example. The “blue collar” jobs, like welder, electrician, construction worker, etc., are (incorrectly) viewed as less promising with little room for growth. However, more than 3 million jobs are open in the trades, far more than there are people willing to fill these slots. 

The stigma of a dingy, dark, noisy work environment that might pose physical dangers contrasts with parents’ wishes that their kids earn higher wages while employed in safe workplaces. Rowe is working to change such skewed assumptions.

Growing up in Baltimore, Rowe was closely connected to the skilled trades—agriculture, fabrication, construction—“all the things that make civilized life work,” he recalls. But it was his grandfather who made the biggest impression. Granddad lived next door and his jack-of-all-trades abilities fascinated young Rowe and set the tone for his future in entertainment as a proponent for skilled trades.

“My granddad could build a house without a blueprint. He was a fabricator, a mechanic, plumber, master electrician, and a steam and pipe fitter,” Rowe says. “He left school at seventh grade but by age 35, he was a master of these skills. Growing up next to him, I had a front row seat as an apprentice and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Very quickly, however, Rowe realized the natural ability inherent in his grandfather did not pass down to him. “None of those skills came easily to me,” he says. His every effort resulted in frustration. “I wanted to be a tradesman but I didn’t have the raw talent to do it.” After another “screwup,” granddad advised him: “You could be a tradesman if you want, you just need a different toolbox.”

One day while living in San Francisco, working various jobs—acting, singing—Rowe’s mother called: “It would be great if your 90-year-old granddad could see you doing something that actually looks like work.”

Rowe came up with “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” a show where he became an apprentice, performing various jobs in multiple industries. “It took me back to my childhood and I was able to reconnect with the world of trades. The show plugged me back into that world I appreciated.”

“Dirty Jobs” followed and as host, he embarked on a wide range of apprenticeships—everything from retriever of road kill to crab fisherman, from welder to steelworker. What all the workers had in common, Rowe says, is “what I call the ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ phenomenon. They know they’re fundamentally unappreciated but they know they hold polite society together,” he says. “If all welders called in sick for a week, we’d have a problem. The whole world is held together by welds, the connective tissue that allows every building to stand.”

To foster an appreciation for the trades and make it attractive to future workers, Rowe says the representation of these professions should be corrected. “Blue-collar jobs are often portrayed as drudgery. If he’s a plumber, the first image that most likely comes to mind is a 300 lb. guy stooped over with a giant butt crack.” Not so, he says. “These people as a group are having more fun than you—you’ve got to have a sense of humor if you have a dirty job.”

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Photo: mikeroweWORKS Foundation

“Dirty Jobs” continues to have a devout following in the U.S. and around the world. Second takes were rare. “We showed you exactly what was happening, kept the chronology of the day, [giving] an honest, authentic view—warts and all.” 

Spread the word

In 2008, Rowe started mikeroweWORKS and became involved in trades education causes. “We launched on Labor Day the year the economy tanked,” he says. Unemployment was above 10 percent as thousands sought work. “But construction sites and factory floors had ‘Help Wanted’ signs posted everywhere,” Rowe recalls.

Employers reported they were unable to find people willing to learn a skill in demand, redirect their career path, train and relocate if necessary. After checking the data, Rowe realized more than 3.3 million jobs were lost during the Great Recession. Losses accumulated to 5.5 million by 2016. “Those are the industries that allowed my show to thrive,” he says. “So I thought it would be good to do something for those trades and promote stories without exploding toilets.”

By 2009, the trades jobs that had always been there were now being discussed in the media. “Suddenly I am in a position to talk about opportunities that people aren’t into.” Through mikeroweWORKS, many job seekers discovered they didn’t need  a four-year degree to succeed and instead attained vocational skills. 

In 2008, it was more difficult to persuade people “how important skilled trades were,” Rowe says. “Now people are interested. I hear complaints all the time about how people can’t find a plumber or find one that costs less than a psychiatrist. We’ve trained 20 to 30 welders and many of them make six figures,” he notes.  

Jump Start

Rowe uses his celebrity to support programs that promote vocational education. The Jump Start pre-apprentice program in Baltimore teaches trade skills. Here, too, there was no interest initially. “People simply don’t want to do the work and not because there aren’t paid positions available,” Rowe says.

Building contractors said “they couldn’t find people willing to learn a construction trade,” Rowe recalls. “They wanted people willing to try construction, to push that reset button and learn the new skills necessary to get a well-paid job in the industry.”

Companies involved with the program went into the city and started working with nonviolent offenders, who Rowe says were willing to try anything to earn a living. In talking to this group, Rowe says that after four or five years in prison, finding a job to re-enter and contribute to society was difficult. But after Jump Start, rather than earn $10 a day, “these former inmates are earning $52 an hour and are working 30 to 50 hours a week.”

A balanced education

Besides the ever-present skills gap, Rowe has observed a gap in understanding the value of blue-collar versus white-collar careers. “We’ve separated education into different categories,” he says. “White and blue collar, higher and alternative education. The average observer is left with this notion that there are good and bad jobs, good and bad education. And because we’re obsessed with putting these things in order and constantly ranking things, over the last 50 years we’ve convinced kids and parents that there is one best path and any other path is only because you’re not smart or rich enough to get a ‘good job.’”

Students are told they should take out loans for a college degree, but then they graduate and no jobs are offered in their major. “That creates a perfect storm of stupidity,” he says. For college graduates, unemployment stands at 5.6 percent (and was 5.5 percent in 2007), and the underemployment rate is 12.6 percent (9.6 percent in 2007), according to the Economic Policy Institute.

Celebrating some career paths at the expense of others may result in conflict later. Even well-intentioned programs still lack the inclusiveness of all skills that help make a well-rounded worker and human being, according to Rowe. Asked if there is something missing within movements like STEM (focused on science, technology, engineering and math), Rowe says there’s no mention of other skills or humanities. “Skills, or arts, are left out,” says Rowe, “STEM could really be STEAMS—don’t leave out the arts and skills.”

The arts are important, he continues, adding that a well-rounded curriculum features both practical skills and the comprehension that reading and analyzing literature develops, while also teaching morality and empathy.

One type of work should not be deemed as more or less important. During the latest presidential campaign, Rowe recalls a particular speech that set him on edge. “Marco Rubio was wrong when he said we need more welders and fewer philosophers,” Rowe says. “You can’t value one job more than the other. We need balance—we can have both a welder who can quote Kierkegaard and Nietzsche and a philosopher who can weld.” He wants career guidance counselors, parents and students to avoid such traps.

“I met a guy loading a flatbed at a construction job who quoted Chaucer while he did it.” The value of knowledge is not limited by your profession, Rowe says.

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Photo: Michael Segal

Cost-benefit analysis 

As tuition at traditional four-year universities and liberal arts colleges skyrockets, “we want to know why the cost is so high,” says Rowe, but he believes the answer is because we attach such value to it. “We know education is important. Learning a language, history, reading and analyzing” help to mold individuals capable of complex problem solving and critical thinking.

When Rowe attended Towson University in Maryland in the 1980s, tuition was between $3,200 and $6,000 a year, compared to $9,400 to $21,000 (state resident versus out-of-state rate) for 2016-17. Tuition “has increased faster than health care, food, real estate—never before has anything so important gotten so exponentially expensive,” he says, and students are caught in the crossfire.

Setting standards

In addition to educating people on the merits of employment in the trades, Rowe also works to improve the work environments of trade jobs. Often a job on a factory floor or construction site comes with a level of danger. To quell any misgivings, Rowe supports improving workplace safety and it is a topic that has been a part of many television episodes. “I’ve had letters from OSHA, EPA, PETA, AAA, and the FBI about how during one show or another we weren’t in compliance with safety regulations,” Rowe says, recalling a show where he apprenticed as a hot tar roofer and was criticized for not being harnessed and anchored by a rope.

“Here I am in Pasadena on top of a sloping roof 6 ft. off the ground—untied,” he recalls. OSHA contacted Rowe because he wasn’t strapped in. “The lanyards and ropes were stretchy and the rope was 7 ft. long.” He brought the fact up to the foreman, who responded by asking, “What’s the point of tying off a 7 ft. rope when you’re 6 ft. off the ground?” That’s when Rowe started Safety 3rd, which is based on the idea that OSHA, or your boss, cares more about your well being than you do—which is when trouble starts.

To prepare for each “Dirty Jobs” filming, pages of protocol and mandatory compliance meetings became tiring and tedious to Rowe and his crew. “We couldn’t take it anymore,” he says. “That’s when you start getting hurt. Just because you’re in compliance doesn’t mean you’re out of danger.” 

Changing attitudes

There is no slowing down for Rowe. His podcast, The Way I Heard It, advocates the value of skilled trades to listeners through stories and anecdotes. “These stories highlight influential people who changed how everyone does things. These entrepreneurs and skilled workers have been useful in starting the conversation of what makes a good job and we shouldn’t limit who that can be.”

Have social morés and attitudes toward certain types of work really changed since 2008? Rowe is skeptical. “The main goal is to challenge those prevailing ideas compared to months or years or a generation or two,” he says. “The truth is, I’m not a bloody do-gooder, but the people willing to invest time and effort to learn a new skill are rewarding the kind of behavior we want at mikeroweWORKS—they want to learn a trade and we are here to help them do it.” FFJ

 


 

POLICY PUSH AND PULL

With a new administration, Rowe is frequently asked where he stands. “I don’t look at political trends or hiring trends,” he says. “I look at the individual person looking for a skill.

“With respect to Presidents Trump and Obama, or whoever is next, I recognize economic policy is dictated with a push or pull in one direction or another, but work is fundamental. Society has a massive impact on what we should aspire to.”

What the Trump administration does differently from a previous or future administration, he cannot predict. “But I’ll make the same offer to Trump that I made to Obama. Obama talked about ‘shovel ready’ jobs. I said that sounded good but, if you think you’re going to sell 3 million jobs that people look down their nose at, you’re going to have a hard time filling them. I offered to help spread a less disparaging viewpoint.”

In 2011, Rowe testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation to address the widening skills gap. Since then, through his mikeroweWORKS foundation, Rowe and his team eschew the stigma associated with skilled labor and seek to equip tomorrow's workers with the tools they need to embark on a viable career path.

Sources

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