Mike Rowe talks about the dirty topic of educating future workers

Therese Dunphy

March 4, 2014

Mike Rowe talks about trade skills jobs at a media event on March 3.
Mike Rowe talks about trade skills jobs at a media event on March 3.

At a media event on Monday, March 3, Dirty Jobs star Mike Rowe discussed the need to change the image of trade skills jobs and encourage more young people to choose careers in skilled trades.

As part of the collaborative effort between Caterpillar and mikeroweWORKS Foundation, scholarships are being offered at trade schools around the country for “work ethics scholarships.” Another round of those scholarships, with UTI, was announced earlier this month.

“I’m busier than I’ve ever been working with the foundation and with Caterpillar, focusing on the skills gap, focusing on alternative education, focusing on work ethics scholarships, and, mostly, a kind of pr campaign for hard work,” Rowe said. “That’s really what brought us together in the first place.”

As the 2008 recession was taking hold, Rowe says that he began to see “something curious” as he worked on Dirty Jobs: help wanted signs. “It just seemed odd, given the fact that the headlines were what they were, to see so much opportunity,” he recalls. “No matter where I went, I heard the same story over and over again from employers – how difficult it was to find people who were willing to learn a new skill, retrain, retool, show up early, stay late.

“It got me thinking that something was disconnected, fundamentally,” he said. “We started talking about the jobs themselves, that were often overlooked, and we started to look at the link between the jobs that were available and the relationship the country had with the education that was required to get that job and we started to see even more disconnects.”

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Click image for more show coverage

Rowe attributed part of that disconnect to the bias against technical skills that pervades much of the modern education system, and society in general. He talked about a meeting with his own high school guidance counselor, who reviewed his academic results and pointed him toward a couple of four-year programs and described a poster that portrayed the idea of a four year college graduate being set for life while a mechanic was shown as the “cautionary tale” of what happens to people who don’t pursue higher education. Rowe said he didn’t know what he wanted to do and planned to attend a two-year technical school, which the guidance counselor advised him against.

Conquering this bias is one of the challenges the industry faces as it seeks the next generation of workers. “It would be okay if they ignored (skilled trades), but they use them as cautionary tales,” he said. But the path to success isn’t that linear Rowe added, noting that he met a former Cat employee in North Dakota who works his own hours, has paid off his mortgage and is earning an annual income of $160,000.

“You don’t have to go into debt to get the jobs that are actually out there,” he said. And while it’s not an easy task to change the image of the industry, the dirty job of its advocates, he says, is to keep talking about it.

Profoundly Disconnected

photo-3-2Talking about the important role construction workers play in the nation’s success is just what Mike Rowe does in his book, Profoundly Disconnected: A True Confession from Mike Rowe. The one-paragraph book (with extended preface and appendix) showcases his affection and appreciation for the various construction fields.

The book jacket says it all, “In many ways, we have declared a cultural war on work, and the casualties are all around us. How else can we explain millions of jobs that no one seems to want, at a time when so many are out of work? Or a trillion dollars in student loans when just 12 percent of all jobs require a four-year degree? Or the systematic removal of vocational education from high schools around the country, at a time when most viable opportunities require those very skills? In short, how did we manage to get our heads this far up our own butt, and is there any hope of every pulling it out?”

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