Culture

Mike Rowe Wants To Help Close The Skills Gap And Make America Work Again


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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?

Yup.

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…

Yeah, I don’t know anybody who is doing what they majored in.

Right? Doctors, lawyers, because what else are you gonna do? They’re very specialized.

You know what, though? We have lawyers who write for us. That’s their job. They are editors and they are writers and they aren’t practicing law.

True enough, but they got outta law school the first thing they did was not apply to Uproxx. They didn’t go out in the world to find their freelance writing niche. They went out there to be a rainmaker. It’s kind of like the same crap we say to people who are miserable in love. It’s like this idea that finding your soulmate is going to change everything. You’d be happier in your wretched relationship if the other person was more aligned with you. That’s the overarching narrative. You’d be happier in your job if your job was your dream job, if your mate was your soulmate. And it’s just a steady diet of forcing the relevance of external things that, in my estimation, have completely screwed us up and led to $1.3 trillion in student loans that aren’t gonna get paid back.

I think it goes beyond PR, I think it’s in the way people act toward each other. I worked for an HVAC company years ago. I was an office guy. There was such a gap. You’d see some of these office people just thumb their noses up at guys who are up in attics installing duct work in 100-degree weather.

Or under the house.

Yeah, and then people would just kind of thumb their noses like they were animals with wrenches. It’s crazy.

Yeah. The truth is, it kind of goes both ways.

And that’s not to say the guys out in the field didn’t think we were sitting on our asses doing nothing all day too. It does absolutely go both ways.

Yeah, there’s a band of brothers mentality among dirty jobbers. Anybody with a skilled trade knows… I’m not talking about a union component, but I mean they are united in a belief. I hate to speak for anybody other than me, but it was one of the big lessons of Dirty Jobs — everybody seemed to be having a better time than we expected. I think part of the reason was an awareness that… If you’re an HVAC guy, or an electrician, or a plumber and you and all your pals call out sick for a week, parties over. If the accountants and… we could go down another list of jobs — they’re important, but they’re not critically important and they don’t connect us in the same way to our infrastructure and to civilized life.

It’s easy for each side to kind of look at the other side and make certain judgments. Honestly, that’s what the skills gap is, it’s the space between blue and white collar jobs where opportunity falls because people on either side don’t really respect [the other side]. I mean, it really comes down to appreciation. If you flip on the lights this morning and didn’t think to yourself briefly when it came on, “crap man, that’s amazing.” It’s the same thing as like, flushing the toilets or anything else. When these things work, we’re not properly gobsmacked by the stuff that works. The minute you start taking things for granted, that’s when you stop promoting it. When you stop promoting it that’s when people lose interest. And that, maybe, is why you’ve got 5.5 million jobs sitting there that nobody really cares about.

You’ve said we need to start celebrating hard work and smart work at the same time. When you see Donald Trump talk about the jobs that we need to fight for, is he putting too much of an emphasis on blue collar jobs? Is there a balance that he needs to find so that we’re not in that situation where its one side versus the other?

Yeah, actually. I do think he’s gotta be careful in that way. Trump will make the same mistake that the other side did. I don’t mean the other political side, I mean the other jobs conversation — it all comes down to over-compensation. If you’re going to promote a four-year degree and use alternative education for blue collar work as a cautionary tale and as a reason [why] you better get your four-year degree, otherwise you’re gonna get stuck building high rises. Well, that sucks. It’s dumb and it’s judgemental and it completely presupposes that some people… Well, it presupposes that we need high rises, for God’s sakes. But if you go in and you sort of reinvigorate the trade by ignoring the white collar side of things, that’s no less stupid. The message isn’t for white collar or blue collar workers, the message is for the 300 million people in the country who rely upon both.

That’s really what my foundation does that’s different than a lot of other ones. I’ve been in touch with the past administration and I might be in touch with this one, as well, but the message is the same: I can’t help you guys by joining your team. I can’t put on a “Make America Great Again” hat and go out and start talking about mikeroweWORKS. Nobody would listen to me except the people who are listening already. So it doesn’t make any sense. We have to have something that’s non-partisan, that just focuses on opportunities that truly exist.

One of the simple questions that is dividing the country right now is this: is opportunity dead? Is it dead? Is the system rigged? There are a lot of people who believe the answer to this question is yes. I disagree with that, but I understand why they might agree with it. I don’t think a politician or a political movement is going to change anybody’s mind.

Like you said with Project Jumpstart, government didn’t do anything. You had private industry come in there and do that. Is that the key to this? Is it businesses rediscovering a sense of corporate conscience? That kind of “Made in America” spirit?

Yeah, I think it’s part of it. But I think if you confuse the icing with the cake or the wrapping with the package… it’s important to be optimistic. It’s important to feel like we’re on the right track. Because if you don’t feel that way, than you’re just Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the hill.

It’s so hard to get there now with just the way… it’s chaos. I saw your blog post about social media. Everyone’s hair is on fire and everyone’s screaming all day, every day.

Forgive me if this sounds like somebody’s talking points, but for me, the problem is with Twitter. All of social, really, is informed by this. But the shorter the format, the more likely it is that you’re going to express your feelings without any thought behind it.

It’s the speed factor of it.

Yeah, it’s immediate. It’s like these tweets, they’re like farts. They’re just so easy to send out and anybody can do it and they’re [laughs] mostly hot air… That [analogy] isn’t bad, actually.

Trademark that. Put that on a rock. It’s good.

Yeah, right.

I take it you’re not running for office anytime soon?

No man, I can’t even keep a show on the air. What the hell would I do in office? I’m such a fan of the country, I’m worried about a lot of things you’re probably worried about. But to the extent that I’ve been able to move the needle at all… I don’t have any delusions of grandeur. I take small bites. That’s why, [with] mikeroweWORKS: It’s one person at a time. We tell individual stories. These guys at Project Jumpstart, honestly I just talked to this guy, his name’s Tyrone. Six years ago, he was given ten bucks a day as a stipend and he was living on the streets. Today he’s a master electrician making 52 bucks an hour.

Wow.

He should be on a poster. Any kind of workforce program, any sort of initiative that this administration might do to reinvigorate the trades has to start with finding success stories. You have to show examples of people who really made their way up. Not through just a job, this is the other thing too. People just look at electricians and plumbers and all this stuff as a job. So many small businesses are formed by people who started by mastering a trade. I mean, it is an in-road to many many things. When we dismiss the opportunity as a subordinate job we also wind up dismissing it as a career and as a going concern that could wind up employing a lot of other people.

You can find out more about The mikeroweWORKS Foundation here and you can catch up with Mike’s ‘The Way I Heard It’ podcast here.

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