Millions of Americans know Mike Rowe as the hardworking man behind a slew of successful shows that required him to get covered head-to-toe in mud, grease, oil, grime and an assortment of other unpleasant substances.
The nation currently has a skills gap, which means that millions of traditionally “blue collar” jobs go unfilled because companies can’t find qualified applicants. Mr. Rowe set out to change that in 2008 with his foundation, which counters a cultural narrative that four-year degrees are intrinsically better than what were traditionally called the vocational arts.
The “Returning the Favor” host recently spoke with The Washington Times about the track record mikeroweWORKS has made for itself as it celebrates a decade of Work Ethic Scholarships given out, his collaboration with work-boot maker Wolverine, and the cultural changes in America that mutated the perception of work from something virtuous into a punishment.
TWT: What is the statistic you are most proud of regarding the foundation?
Mike Rowe: Nobody’s ever asked me that before. In a way, as far as the statistic goes it would be the number “one.” By that I just mean the fact that we deal with one person at a time. Our basic mandate is never to get bigger or larger than we can handle.
Our job is to tell stories. Stories of people who applied for a scholarship, mastered a skill, and went on to prosper. To the extent that I can do that one at a time I’m most proud. Stepping back I’ll say “number 10.” This is our 10th year. MikeRoweWORKS was founded on Labor Day in 2008 and it’s amazing to still have a foundation that’s evolved from a PR campaign for good jobs that actually exist into a fairly robust scholarship fund. We’re still modest by most foundation’s standards. The third number I’ll give you is “5 million,” which is the number of dollars we’ve risen and given away for Work Ethic Scholarships.
TWT: Is there a person of the years through your work for the foundation or all your successful television shows who has fundamentally changed who you are as a person or changed the trajectory of your life?
Mike Rowe: I know it sounds glib, but going back to “Dirty Jobs” you can literally spin the wheel of dirt and no matter where it stops it would land on someone who had an absolute impact on the way I thought on my own level of connectivity to things that matter. Where does our energy come from? Where does our food come from? These big fundamental ideas that I used to be really enamored of as a kid growing up that I became disconnected from over the course of my life. I think a lot of other people have become disconnected too.
I could talk to you about Bob Colmes, the pig farmer in Nevada who taught me the true value of conservation. Or Les Swanson from Wisconsin who taught me the value of the reverse commute.
There’s just dozens of dozens of stories, but I guess if I wanted to see any of them written down I would tell you briefly about my grandfather who started all of this. “Dirty Jobs” happened because my grandfather was 92 and fading and my mom called me at CBS to say, “Michael, it would really be nice if, before your grandfather died, he could turn the TV on and see you doing something that looked like work. She was so right. I had been hosting this show called “Evening Magazine” and I thought, “Well, crap. Maybe I should make this different.:
I started going to factories and construction sites and mines and sewers and hosting this little local show in really unusual places. I started working with the people that I met there to create content and segments. That’s how “Dirty Jobs” started. It was really just an attempt for me to pay a modest tribute to my grandfather who, by the way, only made it to the seventh grade but could build a house without a blueprint. He was the kind of guy who could take a combine or your watch and put it back together blindfolded. By the time he was 30 he was a master electrician, a plumber, steam fitter, pipe fitter, mechanic, welder, architect. He just could build or fix anything.
So that’s a long answer, but fundamentally every project I’ve touched in the last 15 years happened because essentially it was trying to pay a tribute to him.
TWT: Where did this false narrative originate that it’s only a four-year degree that puts you on a path to success? Is there a even a “Patient Zero” regarding this particular kind of intellectual virus?
Michael Rowe: That’s a terrific question. No, I don’t think there’s a “Patient Zero,” but I think it’s undeniably true that once upon a time a guy like my grandfather was seen as heroic. Today, he would largely be transparent. We somehow or another just got to the point where we stopped valuing certain kinds of jobs. After that, we stopped valuing certain kinds of education. Those two things are linked in my view. It’s really hard to talk about the definition of a good job in 2018 without talking about the definition of a good education.
My answer is not a “Patient Zero” answer, but sometime in the mid-70s college got a PR campaign — and it needed one. We needed more people going to four-year schools. We needed more people in what they started to call higher education. The problem was that the PR campaign that emerged in colleges did so at the expense of the trade schools. Rather than simply say, “Hey, college is important. Higher education is great. Get out and get your four-year degree and here’s why,” what we started saying was “if you don’t go to college, if you don’t get a four-year degree, then you’re going to wind up like this guy.” And then we would point our finger at a mechanic or a garbage man or somebody working in the mud, whatever.
We started to use college as the remedy or as a cautionary tale: so if you don’t get here, then you’re going to wind up over there. The next thing you know, higher education becomes a turn of phrase and everything else becomes not lower education but alternative education. We draw the line pretty clear that if you’re not cut out for college then maybe you should take one of these “crap jobs” over here. I think — I’m not an expert, but it was that way of thinking that ultimately started the contagion.
People are always asking how college got so expensive. College today is more expensive in relative terms — nothing important ever got so expensive so quickly. The cost of a four-year degree has risen faster than energy, real estate, food, everything. Even health care. Nothing comes close to the cost of a four-year degree. The reason why it got so expensive in my view is because we actually convinced an entire generation that they’d be screwed without one. And then we freed up literally unlimited money, loaned to people, so the pressure on an 18-year-old kid to borrow $80,000 in order to get a degree for a job that doesn’t exist any more is mind-boggling.
We’ve got $1.5 trillion in student loans on the books. We hold a note. We have 6.6 million jobs that exist — most of which don’t require a four-year degree — but we’re still telling kids and parents that the best path for the most people is a university. We’re profoundly disconnected from the educational opportunities that exist and the educational opportunities that are necessary to exploit.
That’s a long way of saying why my foundation doesn’t reward academic excellence. We don’t reward athleticism or talent. We look for work ethic and we limit the money we give to people who are pursuing a skill. That’s really my answer: “Patient Zero” was actually a campaign designed to minimize an entire category of education.
One final point, Doug. What’s the real legacy of all of that? Shop class gone from high school. That’s the most tangible example of what happened as a result. It didn’t used to be called shop. It used to be called the vocational arts. The first thing we did was to take the “art” out of it, and then we took vocational education just down to vo-tech. Nobody even knew what that meant.
Once it became “shop,” then it was a lot easier to lead outside and take behind the barn and shoot it behind the ear, which is what we did. There’s simply no better way to tell a kid what’s important than to remove from school all representation of that kind of work. That’s what we’ve done and that’s why the skills gap is huge and that’s why the student loans are enormous and that’s why these industries are in desperate need of a PR campaign that actually works.
TWT: How hard has it been for you to navigate the nonprofit world on this particular issue when it’s very easily warped into a partisan hot potato? You obviously don’t want to alienate long-time fans. How have you been able to thread that needle?
Mike Rowe: I don’t know that I really have in a truly successful way. I think I’ve managed. It’s a bloodbath, dude. I’ll level with you, man. It’s a knife fight in a phone booth. Every day the forces on both sides are vociferous.
I’ve been to Congress three times. It’s hysterical. I testified in front of Senate committees, House committees, all of them. Afterwards, I always get phone calls from people on both sides of the aisle saying, “We know exactly where you’re coming from. You’re our kind of guy.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?”
The good news with that is that fundamentally, my message is not partisan. It’s becoming that way, unfortunately, because a lot of people seem to think that if you champion opportunity and reward personal responsibility, those words have become code for something — I’m not even sure what. I can’t even get sucked into it. I can only tell you that my foundation exists because people on “Dirty Jobs” proved to me beyond a shadow of a doubt that opportunity was alive and well — even at the height of the recession.
In 2009, when my foundation was just getting off the ground, every headline I saw talked about record-high unemployment. Even then, every week on “Dirty Jobs” I saw “Help Wanted” signs over and over and over. It really became obvious to me that there’s an inconvenient truth and an unpopular narrative that’s always right under the surface when you talk about the skills gap.
It’s really been brought into focus in this last year and a half or so by people who really challenge when I say, “Look, there are 6 million jobs out there and I can prove it.” They challenge me because they just want to say, “Look, the only reason those jobs exist is because they’re lousy jobs. They don’t pay any money because employers are greedy.” Those are my friends on the left. My friends on the right say, “Yeah, those jobs only exist because everybody’s just lazy.” Well, they both miss the point. Not everybody is lazy. Not everyone who is out of work is lazy and not everybody who employs people is a rapacious, greedy capitalist.
The opportunities are undeniably real. Ten years ago I just talked as a guy with a theory. Now, I can point to hundreds of people who have gone through our program who are making six figures doing the exact kinds of jobs most parents hope and pray their kids don’t do. There’s a colossal disconnect. Challenging those myths is basically the job.
TWT: How has the media coverage over the years contributed this problem?
Mike Rowe: If I were to ask you to close your eyes and imagine a plumber, I’m guessing that you would imagine a guy weighing 300-pounds with those giant tool belts and an enormous ass crack, right? That’s how we think of plumbers. That’s how we think of workers. The stereotypes that we perpetuate in sitcoms and film are exactly that. They’re stereotypes.
Tropes and bromides and platitudes — all these things get magnified by the media for better and worse. There’s no doubt in my mind that our society has declared an accidental war on work. The media does it in its portrayal of skilled workers. Madison Avenue does it in a thousand different examples of commercials.
When you talk about happiness or job satisfaction and you’re a financial services company, the odds are pretty good that work is going to be positioned as the thing that is making you miserable. In other words, if you’re unhappy it’s because you’re working too much or you can’t retire soon enough. You’re not taking enough vacation. Work is the thing that keeps you down, and your boss is probably a pain in the ass. And so it goes. It’s a long, long list of ideas that confirm the basic notion that work is the enemy.
What exactly is it we’re valuing as a society? You can find examples from the sublime to the ridiculous but all of it informs this larger idea that our definition of a good job has changed into something we don’t quite understand is completely untethered from the actual opportunities that exist.
TWT: How have you managed to stay humble over the years? How have you stayed morally grounded and principled?
Mike Rowe: Your first question nobody ever asked me. For 15 years the nice things happened to me. I had hundreds of jobs and I was doing OK, but I wasn’t swinging for the fences. I just wanted to work in my chosen industry. “Dirty Jobs” kind of called me on all of that. “Dirty Jobs” required me to do the opposite of everything I was trained to do.
What that meant for me from a humility standpoint was that I had to be OK looking like a total jackass. When I started doing “Dirty Jobs,” I was 42. This was 2004 and everything kind of fell into place. I didn’t have to act like I knew anything I didn’t know. All I had to do was try and be respectful with the people I was working with and have a few laughs. That was for me was truly the secret sauce. I was to not only expect the pie in the face but to figure out how to like it.
I’m arrogant in my own specific way. My hubris is unique to me, but when I run this foundation I stay in my lane. I try to stay focused on stories of individual people. It is rooted in humility. I know this because the minute I try and make it more than it is, it gets away from me. Nobody ever asks about modesty or humility. At the moment they’re the two most underrated virtues in civil discourse and in my own personal charity for whatever that’s worth.
In celebration of the 10th anniversary of mikeroweWORKS, Wolverine announced that it would make 150 pairs of Mr. Rowe’s favorite 1,000-miler work boot. Proceeds will go to the scholarship’s Work Ethic Scholarship Fund.
“Lots of companies large and small help us each year,” Mr. Rowe said. “This is just another way to organically thank a company who makes my boots and for them to support a foundation that will hopefully help them lessen the skills gap as well. They’re not different than anybody else. They need talented, enthusiastic, hardworking people. That’s hard to find.”