Mike Rowe talks to Plough's Susannah Black about practical work, why college is overvalued, and how he found redemption in a San Francisco sewer.
Plough: What's lost if a young person doesn't learn a trade?
Mike Rowe: Mastering a trade gives you a sense of competency, confidence, and completion. Something positive happens when you get good at doing work that has a beginning and an end. I always knew how I was doing on Dirty Jobs, because all I had to do was look to see my progress. People who never go into a trade don't experience the benefit of constant feedback — of always knowing how you're doing.
What happened to make your approach seem so radical? Why is this not common sense?
All our choices these days feel binary. If I advocate for one thing, people assume it's because I'm against another. So when I say more people should learn a trade, it often comes back as "Mike is anti-college." That's not true, of course. I'm opposed to unnecessary debt, and I think the cost of a four-year degree is out of control. But arguing in favor of the trades only feels "radical" because it conflicts with the long-held belief that a four-year degree is the best path for the most people.
How did that belief take root?
It's like the frog in the boiling water. It didn't happen overnight. We decided in the sixties that college needed a PR campaign — and it got a really good one. It was the Cold War, we were trying to compete with the USSR, automation was ramping up. We looked around and said, "We need more engineers. We need more big brains doing deep dives into the things you learn in college." And so we went into high schools with a truly silly message: "If you don't go to college, you'll be irrelevant, you'll miss out." We began to promote one form of education at the expense of another. We turned half of our workforce into a cautionary tale. We made trade school into a vocational consolation prize. Throw in a few decades of stereotypical portrayals on TV, and you wind up with a boatload of myths and misperceptions that surround a career in the trades.
A lot of parents seem set on the idea of their kids going to college. Can you talk more about that pressure?
The belief that a college degree is the best path for the most people is deeply held, and it's reinforced every day in countless ways. Today, if a "good parent" sends their kid to a "good school," and the kid winds up indebted or unhappy, the parent — subconsciously — can say, "Well, we did all we could." But did they? Is it really wise to assume that borrowing (or lending) a hundred grand to pursue a liberal arts degree is really the best path for the most people? Nearly half of those who enroll in a four-year school don't finish. They enter the workforce with no degree, and no useful skill. Their debt, however, stays with them.
We're lending money we don't have to kids who aren't going to be able to pay it back to educate them for jobs that don't exist.
Parents are subjected to the same kind of peer pressure as kids. They don't want to screw their kids up. Their friends are watching. And so, every year, thousands of well-intentioned, otherwise rational parents allow their kids to assume a level of debt they simply can't afford. Maybe that's why the cost of college has risen faster than the cost of energy, food, real estate, and healthcare? Maybe that's why we've got $1.5 trillion in student loans? We're lending money we don't have to kids who aren't going to be able to pay it back to educate them for jobs that don't exist. Meanwhile, we have 7.3 million open jobs, many of which require training — not a degree. Probably time to push back against the pressure.
What kind of exposure did you have to the trades growing up?
Most everyone in my family except my parents, who were schoolteachers, were farmers, fisher-men, or tradespeople. My grandfather, who lived next door, was a master electrician — one of those guys who could build a house without a blueprint. He was a genius in his own way, and I was determined to follow in his footsteps.
Unfortunately, the handy gene is recessive, and apparently, I didn't get it. It took me a long time to get the message that I was not going to make a living in the trades, but it was my grandfather who gave me a different way to think about things. He said, "Look, Mike, you can be a tradesman, just get a different toolbox." I was seventeen when I started looking at music and acting. While I didn't initially love them, I learned that I was good at them. At least, better than I was at making things. It was a valuable lesson: just because you love something doesn't mean you're going to be good at it, and just because you don't like something initially doesn't mean you shouldn't pursue it.
What did that pursuit look like? What was your first job?
I crashed an audition for the Baltimore Opera and got my union card. That allowed me to audition for roles in television, including a very weird but very instructive job as a host on The QVC Shopping Channel. That experience changed everything. Three years later, I'd accumulated enough skills to book all sorts of work. I became a chronic freelancer, and loved it. I worked for every network, hosted all kinds of different shows, and narrated hundreds of nature documentaries. If there was a wildebeest being eaten by a crocodile as it tried to cross the Serengeti, I was probably telling you about it.
Most people who are passionate about what they do whom I've met didn't follow their dream. They followed opportunity, mastered a useful skill, and then grew to love their job — usually after they got good at it.
But along the way, I became slowly disconnected from the things that I grew up with — where my food came from, where my energy came from, work, history; all of the things that I valued as a kid, I began to take for granted.
And then, when I was working at CBS in 2001, my mom called me. "Your grandfather's ninety," she said. "He's not going to be around forever. It would sure be great if he could turn on the television and see you doing something that looks like work." She had a point.
I was hosting a show at the time called Evening Magazine. I went to my boss and said, "Look, why does this show always have to be hosted from a winery or a theater opening? Why can't I go to a construction site or a sewer?"
He said, "Do whatever you want, Mike. Nobody's watching the show anyway."
So I hosted an episode of Evening Magazine from a sewer. My guide was a sewer inspector, and together with my cameraman, we crawled through miles of unspeakable filth, and I learned all sorts of things about sewers along the way. It was weird and funny and fascinating. I was also covered in roaches and attacked by a rat. Anyway, that episode aired one night during the dinner hour, and all hell broke loose. Some people were disgusted, obviously, and called for my immediate dismissal. But others — lots of others — wrote in with invitations. It was always the same thing: "You gotta meet my dad, my brother, my uncle, my cousin, my sister. Wait till you see what they do." We were showing work, real work that real people really do, and there was clearly an appetite for more.
Anyway, after ten years of acting like a host, I began to act like an apprentice. I sold that show to the Discovery Channel as Dirty Jobs, and that's how I got reconnected to work. But it started with a phone call from mother.
Tell us about why you started your foundation.
By 2008, Dirty Jobs was the number one show on Discovery. I think it was the number one show on cable. Then the economy went south. Reporters started asking me to weigh in on all kinds of topics relating to work. They assumed I might have an opinion, and it turns out, I did.
The headlines all talked about unemployment. But everywhere I went, I saw Help Wanted signs. So I thought there might be another story going on in the country, a story about opportunities that go unloved because there aren't enough skilled workers to do them. Why is no one talking about that?
I began to write about things that Dirty Jobbers knew that the rest of us don't; I started talking about the frustrations of employers who were unable to attract skilled workers for good jobs that no one wanted.
So my foundation, mikeroweWorks, began as a PR campaign for opportunities in the skilled trades, and evolved into a scholarship fund. We've given away maybe five or six million dollars in "work-ethic scholarships" to people who want to learn a skill or master a trade. I look for qualified candidates who demonstrate the kind of work ethic we all want to encourage, and do what I can to help them.
What are the things that Dirty Jobbers know that the rest of us don't?
They know that if they all call in sick for a week, civilization goes off the rails. That's something that a lot of people lose sight of: civilization is fragile. And the knowledge that they are essential creates a spirit, something unmistakable. Shakespeare said it: "We few, we happy few, we band of brothers." I found that mentality among construction workers and garbage collectors and on factory floors. They know that the wheels would come off if they sat down on the job.
The thing with the Dirty Jobbers that surprised people was what a good time they were having. They were thriving. As a group, they don't say "Follow your passion." By and large, the people we featured on the show understood that passion is too important to "follow." They brought their passion with them.
Today, on the other hand, we tell our kids that the secret to job satisfaction is to first identify that which makes them happy, and then do whatever it takes to get there. We encourage them to borrow whatever it takes to get their "dream job," as though the job will be the thing that determines their happiness. It's the same thing we tell people about finding their soul mate. The idea that there's only one person out there for you, and if you can just find that one person, then you'll be happy. That rarely works in romance, and it rarely works in the workforce.
The thing with the Dirty Jobbers that surprised people was what a good time they were having. They were thriving.
With Dirty Jobs, we introduced the audience to people who make six figures a year cleaning out septic tanks. People who are passionate about what they do, even though they wind up covered in other people's crap. When I ask those people, "What's the secret to job satisfaction," the answer is never, "I followed my passion into a septic tank." The answer is always, "Well, I looked around and said, 'What job needs doing? Oh, here's an opening.' Then I figured out how to be good at it, and finally, how to enjoy it." That's the difference between following your passion versus bringing your passion with you.
Most people who are passionate about what they do whom I've met didn't follow their dream. They followed opportunity, mastered a useful skill, and then grew to love their job — usually after they got good at it. It's that mix: skill, work ethic, knowing who you are, and knowing that what you're doing is actually moving the needle. All of those qualities make happy people. On Dirty Jobs, I met a lot of happy people.
Isn't the approach that you advocate more common in Europe and elsewhere than in America?
It is. In Germany, for example, and in Switzerland and South Korea, there's a heightened sense in the culture that vocational jobs are truly aspirational. That's the key difference — a fundamentally different definition of what a "good job" means, along with a greater enthusiasm for apprenticeship programs and vocational schools. That's not to say we don't have some terrific vocational schools — Williamson College, The New York Harbor School, Dubiski Career High School (just outside of Dallas), and plenty of others; trade schools that will teach you welding or electrical wiring. The problem is PR. Most parents don't realize those schools even exist.
You talk a lot about welding.
That's because society is held together with welds; they are the connective tissue. No welds, everything falls apart. About four years ago, a woman applied for a work-ethic scholarship in welding. We got her trained, she found a job, and six months later, she sent me a pipe in the mail. It was actually two pieces of pipe, perfectly welded together. It occurred to me that when somebody sends you a pipe in the mail with a perfect weld on it and a nice thank-you note, you may be doing something right.
Is it fair to say that your work is about the desire to reconnect to the physical world?
You can't reconnect until or unless you first realize you've become disconnected. That's what happened to me. Over time, I became increasingly disconnected from a lot of things that interested me as a young kid in the Boy Scouts. The first few episodes of Dirty Jobs brought that to my attention.
If the show has a larger purpose, it's to remind people that blue-collar and white-collar work are not opposites — they're two sides of the same coin. Likewise, the skills gap is not a mystery — it's a reflection of what we value, and what we don't.
I got a bunch of calls in 2016 when Marco Rubio said, during the presidential debate, that we need more welders and fewer philosophers. People were like, "Oh man, he's singing your song!" And I said, actually he's not. It's not one or the other. What we need is more welders who can discuss Kant and Descartes, and we need more philosophers who can run an even bead and repair a leaky faucet.
Mike Rowe. "Dirty Work." Plough Quarterly Magazine: 22 Vocation (Autumn, 2019).
Reprinted with permission of Plough Quarterly. The original article can be found here.
Plough Quarterly is a magazine of stories, ideas, and culture to inspire faith and action. Bold, hope-filled, and down-to-earth, it features thought-provoking articles, commentary, interviews, short fiction, book reviews, poetry and art.
Mike Rowe is a television host and an activist who promotes blue-collar trades. He hosted the popular Discovery Channel show Dirty Jobs and the CNN series Somebody's Gotta Do It, apprenticing himself to people who do the hands-on work that keeps civilization running. His website is: mikeroweworks.orgCopyright © 2019 Plough Quarterly
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