Mike Rowe is a real guy. I don’t mean that he’s rough and tumble, like the kind of guy you’d find in a dungarees ad. Though he is and he’s had that job — among many others thanks to his time as the host of Dirty Jobs. When I say the host of The Way I Heard It podcast is a real guy, I mean he’s authentic. He’s also passionate about hard work, hard workers, and connecting the two.
Recently, we spoke to Rowe about that effort and the perception around those jobs, the skills gap, the value of vocational training as an alternative to college, and mikeroweWORKS — a nonprofit that began in 2008 as a response to “calls from The Wall Street Journal [and] Congress” to discuss the kinds of dirty jobs he was often associated with. We also touched on what Donald Trump (and all politicians, really) could be doing better when they talk about jobs and the American dream.
To be sure, Rowe has some strong opinions, but unlike a lot of the rhetoric coming out of Washington, he eschews reassuring promises of a simple or quick fix to instead focus on the success stories and the promise that this is going to take awhile. Again, Mike Rowe keeps it real.
What can you tell me about mikeroweWORKS and, specifically, Project Jumpstart and what you’re working toward?
mikeroweWORKS started as a publicity initiative for the opportunity that actually existed [nearly six million available jobs] and it morphed into a scholarship program. Work ethic scholarships. We’ve done about three, three and a half million dollars so far. Project Jumpstart is the perfect example of what happens when the government doesn’t get involved to solve a problem. But the private sector is left with no choice but to do it themselves. The construction industry in Maryland just couldn’t find qualified workers. So they went into the inner cities to start recruiting for a pre-apprenticeship program. And then they went to prison to look for non-violent offenders who were getting out, and who were willing to learn a skill that was actually in demand. Their stick rate over the last ten years is more than 75% which is absolutely unparalleled.
What do you think it is about these jobs that kind of keeps people at a distance from them?
I wish I had a snappy answer.
Yeah, it definitely begs for a long answer, I know.
Yeah, but it’s a fair question. What you’re really saying is, “Why aren’t people going for these jobs?” So, my buddies on the left would say they’re not going for these jobs because the opportunities really aren’t that great and the bosses are greedy and if they just raised the wages or made it more palatable the skills gap would go away.
My buddies on the right say: they’re lazy. I don’t know that either one is, certainly not completely true, probably some truth to both, I don’t know. But for my money, the real reason you’ve got whole categories of jobs that people aren’t excited about is more societal. About 40 years ago, we started telling the current generation that the best path for the most people was a four-year degree. We really leaned into that. Big PR campaigns in high schools, guidance counselors offices, and all over the place. It was a big push for college and back then college needed a big push. But what happened, at least from a positioning standpoint, is they wound up promoting one form of education at the expense of all the other forms. College became higher education and apprenticeship programs, trade schools, community colleges, and all the job training opportunities, those became alternatives to education. So we kind of set the table in a pretty screwed up way. Coming right out of the gate, it’s like college is what you want and if you don’t cut out for it, then you can have one of these crappy jobs over here.
“The world needs ditch-diggers, too.”
Yeah. It’s more than that, it’s that mentality. But now it’s not just ditch diggers, now it’s health care. It’s pipe fitting. It’s welding. We put dozens of kids through our program who are making more than six figures welding. And nobody talks about it. It’s bad PR in a really general way and so it’s motivated by our education system. It’s reinforced by Hollywood. Picture a plumber in your mind right now and he’s what, 300 pounds with a giant butt crack, right?
These images, these stigmas, these stereotypes, they’re seared into our retina. Madison Avenue helps, right? It’s a steady guide of “hey look, you wanna be happy? Retire sooner. Work less. Punch out early.” It’s a steady diet of work is the enemy. Work is the enemy. So jobs that look like traditional portrayals of work become an approximate cause of your own unhappiness. Not to sound like some of these cranky old men on the porch yelling at the kids, but we’re vilifying work ethic. We just really took the bait with this idea that, “hey, there are a whole bunch of good jobs over here and a whole bunch of crap jobs over here” and so once you set the table that way, it’s no great mystery.
And the final thing, well not the final thing, but the thing I think is critically important to all this is, along with that push for college and along with that weird delineation between higher and alternative education, you have a bottomless pile of money from which to borrow. And the pressure on kids to borrow money, to go to a college they can’t afford, to study a major that they may or may not be truly interested in…