In America, there’s an assumption that the most meaningful careers are found in office buildings, among those taking part in the information economy rather than in the nitty gritty of blue collar trades. To be eligible for these desirable white collar jobs, you need to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans so you can go to college for 4 years to get a degree. The sacrifice is always worth it though, or so we’re told.
My guest today on the show has made a career of questioning this narrative. In fact, he argues that our obsession with 4-year colleges and white collar work, to the denigration of the blue collar kind, has left us economically and spiritually poorer both on the individual and national level. His name is Mike Rowe.
You might have seen his popular show Dirty Jobs. Since his time as a TV host, he’s become an ardent advocate for trade work through his foundation mikeroweWORKS.
Today on the show, Mike and I discuss where the idea for Dirty Jobs came from and why a show about blue collar workers became a surprise hit. We then explore why we devalue blue collar work, the societal and individual consequences of that devaluation, and what Mike is doing to make pursuing vocational and trade work cool and viable again.
If you’re a young man trying to figure out if college and an office job is right for you, or if you’re a guy in a dead end office job looking for an alternative, Mike’s going to make a strong case for why you should consider putting on a hard hat and getting your hands dirty.
- Mike’s experience hosting Dirty Jobs
- How sheep castration changed everything for Mike
- The reality of how enlightenment often happens
- How Mike became disconnected from how the world works
- Why manual labor and the trades aren’t seen as aspirational
- How higher education became the default next step for high school graduates
- The unfortunate stereotypes and pop culture images attached to trade workers
- The skills gap in the workforce
- Why people are unhappy in their jobs, and what really makes for career enjoyment
- The difference between finding your passion and being passionate about what you do
- Why “follow your passion” is the worst advice that can possibly be given
- The societal consequences of the skills gap
- The challenges faced in addressing our country’s aging infrastructure (and aging trade workers)
- The skills and trades that are most needed today
- What keeps people from entering into the trades
- The foundation that Mike started to promote blue collar work
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Dirty Jobs TV show
- Mike’s TED talk about sheep castration
- My podcast with Cal Newport about the myth of following your passion
- AoM series on Reviving Blue Collar Work
- Is College for Everyone?
- How to Become a Self-Starter
- Malcolm Gladwell and meaningful work
- Go Build Alabama
- My podcast with Tyler Cowen about “the complacent class”
- The Popcorn Report by Faith Popcorn
- mikeroweWORKS Foundation
- The Way I Heard It (Mike’s podcast)
Connect With Mike Rowe
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Well, in America, there’s an assumption that the most meaningful careers are found in office buildings, among those taking part in the information economy, rather than the nitty-gritty of blue-collar trades. And to be eligible for these desirable white-collar jobs, you need to take out tens of thousands of dollars in student loans so you can go to college for four years to get a degree. The sacrifice is always worth it, though, or so we’re told.
My guest today on the show has made a career of questioning this narrative. In fact, he argues that our obsession with college education and white-collar work, to the denigration of blue-collar kind, has left us economically and spiritually poorer, both on the individual and national level. His name is Mike Rowe. You might have seen his popular show, Dirty Jobs. Since his time as a TV host, he’s become an ardent advocate of trade work through his foundation, mikeroweWORKS.
Today on the show, Mike and I discuss where the idea of Dirty Jobs came from and why this show about blue-collar workers became a surprise national hit. We then explore why we devalue blue-collar work, the societal and individual consequences of that devaluation, and what Mike is doing to make pursuing vocational and trade work cool and viable again. If you’re a young man trying to figure out if college and an office job is right for you, or if you’re a guy in a dead-end office job looking for an alternative, Mike is going to make a strong case on why you should consider putting on a hard hat and getting your hands dirty. After the show is over, check out the show notes at aom.is/rowe, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Mike Rowe, welcome to the show.
Mike Rowe: Thanks for having me, guys. Always a pleasure.
Brett McKay: Well, a big fan of your work with Dirty Jobs, and plus the work you’re doing now, after Dirty Jobs, promoting the trades, being an advocate for that. And I’ve got to say, your TED Talk about sheep castration holds a dear place in my heart, because my grandfather, who just passed away last year, 101, when he was in high school, he was a shepherd, and in his memoirs, he goes into detail about sheep castration. And I remember when I saw that episode, when you put your teeth on a sheep’s testicles, I was like, “I know that, I know how to do that because of Grandpa.”
Mike Rowe: You know how few people have actually uttered that sentence in the history of time? I mean, it’s just … Dirty Jobs was so great in the sense that no two days were ever the same, but that particular day … Yeah, you know, the sheep, the testicles, the cameras, and off you go. Yeah, that episode changed everything, really, looking back on it. It was something the network didn’t want to put on the air, it was something people were completely freaked out about, it was something we had gone out of our way to get permission to do. I mean, I called all the proper acronyms, I called the Humane Society, I called PETA. They told me how it was supposed to work, and when I got there, of course, it was a totally different deal. And we just learned so many things in that episode that it completely changed the direction of the show, and to some extent, my own career. It’s amazing what’ll happen when you, you know, bite the balls off a sheep.
Brett McKay: How did it change the direction of the show, after you did that?
Mike Rowe: Well, in a couple of ways. You have to understand, first of all, Dirty Jobs was such an anomaly. It never was supposed to be a hit, much less even on the air. We snuck onto the air in 2003, at a time when there was really no other shows about work anywhere, and the network was kind of horrified, to be honest, by the number of people who liked it, because it didn’t really fit with their brand, or at least what their notion of what the brand was at the time. So there was a lot of cognitive dissonance about the show, and so we were constantly at odds. I was always trying to push the envelope a little bit within that work, and argue for a completely transparent look at whatever the job at hand was.
So there was just a lot of … There were files, Brett, that already existed on me, files from OSHA, from the Humane Society, from PETA, from the FBI. I mean, there’s an army of angry acronyms that used to watch the show and complain about things that they saw on TV that didn’t comport entirely with their worldview. So when I told my boss that I was going to be castrating sheep, she said, “For God’s sakes, Michael” … Her name is Gena, Gena McCarthy. She said, “For God’s sakes, please make sure we do this right.” So I called the proper authorities to tell them what I was going to do, and they explained that you would take rubber bands and put them over the testicles of the sheep, and that would retard the flow of blood, and eventually, the testicles would fall off. And I thought, “Well, that’s pretty weird, but it’ll be great TV.”
And of course, when we went there, there were no rubber bands. It was just a rancher and his wife, and a penknife, and a scrotum that was quickly sliced open, two testicles were exposed, and this guy started literally biting the balls out of the scrotum of sheep, and spitting them into the bucket that I was holding. And it was just so shocking, because it was so unexpected, because I’d done all my homework, you know? I knew how we were supposed to do it, so … My TED Talk, which, by the way, I had no idea I was giving one until about 20 minutes before I gave it, but … My TED Talk was really an explanation of that episode, and how you can get all the authorities to tell you precisely how you’re supposed to do a thing, and still be completely dead wrong.
As brutal as it sounded, the sheep that we castrated with our teeth fared so much better than the ones that we used the rubber bands on, because … You know, after Albert bit the balls off and spit them into my bucket, I was like, “Oh, hold on a minute, we can’t do it this way, we have to do it the approved way,” and so we did it the approved way, and then we had a chance to see the aftermath. And if you look at a baby lamb with a rubber band around its testicles next to another baby lamb who just had its testicles bitten off, the baby lamb with the testicles bitten off doesn’t have a care in the world. There’s very little blood, he’s already forgotten about that which is gone, and he’s prancing around like it’s a new day. The one with the rubber band around his nuts, he limps around, and quivers, and sits in the corner in agony. It changed the direction of the show, and it changed the direction of my career, because it indicated perfectly that you can be absolutely right in terms of compliance, and still, somehow, manage to have your head completely up your own ass.
Brett McKay: You talk about peripeteia, that Greek concept, in the show.
Mike Rowe: Yeah, anagnorisis and peripeteia, sure. That’s it.
Brett McKay: I’m wondering who … I wonder who was the guy that figured out you bite the testicles off a sheep to castrate them. That was the best way to do it.
Mike Rowe: I shudder to think, like, the true etymology of that process, but I would imagine it simply evolved out of practicality. You know, if you’re … I’m sure your grandfather would’ve told you back in the day. You’re not out in the field with a team of people; it’s really just you, and sometimes one other set of hands. To properly apply the banding method, you need three people, and that’s … I mean, that’s a lot of extra personnel. This method is quicker, it’s less painful for the sheep. It’s a hell of a lot weirder, admittedly, but primarily, it’s more efficient. And in the end, one of the big lessons from Dirty Jobs was effectiveness is ultimately the thing that drives innovation. Conversely, and a little weirdly, not efficiency, but effectiveness, and we could probably do a whole hour on the difference between the two, but … Bottom line, biting the balls off sheep is a lot more effective than the approved method.
Brett McKay: Yeah, so, I mean, you mentioned your mind shift changed after that moment. Before that, were you kind of following the “experts,” quote-unquote, that, “Okay, this is the right way to do it, and I’m here to make sure … This is how work should be done; when I don’t see it, according to how the experts say it should be done, then something’s wrong”? And so after that, you decided … I guess your shift was, “Well, let’s just see what the guys on the ground who are actually doing this, what they think is useful, and that’s what we should go after.”
Mike Rowe: You know, in hindsight, it’s easy and tempting to always frame these conversations in terms of the exact moment of awareness. And I said that in my TED Talk, and it was true to a degree, but the real truth is, awareness, and understanding, and realizations, anagnorisis, peripeteia, enlightenment, that stuff is almost always more analogous to a frog in the boiling water, you know? It’s things you realize over time. You have a moment of awareness, but it doesn’t really take root until you have some proof that you can really put behind it, and that takes time.
So for me, the real peripatetic moment in my career happened in a sewer, before Dirty Jobs, when I was working at Evening Magazine, and I was working on a segment called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” and I kind of … I didn’t hate my career. In fact, I’d always kind of liked it. I’d been impersonating a host for 15 years, was more effective as a guest instead of a host. That realization happened when I was working with a sewer inspector, thanks to a rat, actually, who assaulted me and drove me headfirst into just a river of … Again, another long story, but that’s when I began to realize that personally, I could do better on camera as an apprentice as opposed to an expert, as a guest as opposed to a host.
So when I sold Dirty Jobs, I went into it with this understanding that I didn’t want to do, or impersonate, a conventional host. In fact, my pitch to Discovery was “Look, you guys … You guys need another expert like you need a hole in the head. I mean, what you need is a fan of the brand out in the world, doing things not on your behalf, but out of his own misplaced curiosity.” That was the pitch for Dirty Jobs. When we started shooting it, what I learned again and again, over and over and over, was that just about everything I thought I knew about work had been … Well, was wrong, honestly. I had become disconnected from a lot of the things that I’d grown up with.
You know, I had a lot of certainty growing up. My grandfather was a master electrician, and also a plumber, and a steamfitter, and a pipefitter, and a welder, and a guy who could build a house without a blueprint, who only went to the seventh grade. My connection to work as a kid was profound. I knew where our food came from, I knew where our energy came from, and I had a lot of direct lines between how things worked and how the working of things benefited me. By the time I was 43, after working for 15, 16 years in Hollywood, I’d forgotten most of that, or at least become disconnected from it, and so for me, on a very personal level, Dirty Jobs became a reminder of all of those disconnects, all of the things that I had taken for granted, from the lights coming on when we flick the switch to the crap going away when we flush the toilet. Those little miracles took on a larger significance for me thanks to that show, and I think maybe, hopefully, to the viewers as well.
So that’s a long answer to your question, but peripatetic moments happen one on top of the next, and their effect is almost always exponential, so one day, you wake up, and you look back on all that stuff, and you realize, “Holy crap, that’s the point where my thinking diverged. That’s the point where my career went in a direction I didn’t intend it to.” And so you can look back, and you can retrofit things, and try and sound smarter than you are, but in truth, in the moment, you’re just a guy biting the balls of sheep, trying to understand why everything you thought you knew about this process turned out to be completely upside down.
Brett McKay: Well, speaking of how your career went in a different direction than you thought it would go, since Dirty Jobs ended, you’ve become an advocate for making manual labor cool again. Started different foundations, we’ll talk about that here in a bit, but let’s talk about this: Why do you think manual labor is seen as uncool? Right? Most kids don’t aspire to be a plumber, they aspire to be some, I don’t know, social media influencer, or banker, or something. Why don’t people want to go into the trades?
Mike Rowe: We’re suspicious of anything that doesn’t come with a playbook. We want a playbook. We want to know what a good job is, and the best way to figure out what a good job is … Now, I don’t subscribe to any of this, but … And I’m not an expert, obviously, but I think … I think what’s going on right now in society is we have a lot of anxiety around education and vocation, and that anxiety primarily exists with parents, who are desperate not to screw their kids. There’s also anxiety within the educational system from administrators and guidance counselors, who don’t want to be accused of sending some kid down the wrong path. And of course, there’s a lot of anxiety among kids themselves, because they’re looking at the vast, unknown future of their careers and hoping not to … At the same time, there’s endless money available, and a lot of pressure to borrow it in order to go down what a lot of people have said is the best path for the most people.
If you put all of that stuff together, essentially, you’ve got a lot of anxious people saying, “Look, this is your best hope of being happy: Borrow the money, get a four-year degree, get out in the world, and get busy chasing your dream.” I know I’m generalizing, but from what I’ve seen, that’s the trope, that’s the bromide, that’s the platitude that informs so much of what passes as good advice today. Regarding why blue-collar work is not aspirational, I think the main reason is because parents are hardwired to want something better for their kids than they had. The problem is we don’t know what “better” means, but we now know that we have to define something as subordinate.
So it gets a little wonky, but as theories go, I think it really comes down to, in the mid-’70s, we decided that college needed a big PR campaign, and we gave it one, and that PR campaign elevated the importance of a four-year degree, not just for its inherent benefit, but it elevated it at the expense of every other form of education. So the message that started to go out to high school kids was “If you don’t do this, you’re liable to wind up over here, turning a wrench,” or doing something that you really don’t want to do, some kind of vocational consolation prize.
So what we did was we separated higher education from all other forms of enlightenment. Then we attached a price tag to higher education that exponentially rocketed through the roof. That was in the mid-’70s. At the same time, pop culture started to portray traditional working vocations as subordinate. I mean, if there’s a plumber, come on, he’s 300 pounds with a giant butt crack. It’s just the way we portray plumbers. We write books, you know, look at the best-selling books over the last couple of years. The 4-Hour Work Week is somewhere near the top. I’m friends with Tim Ferriss, I like his book, but the things we started to respond to were messages that said, “Hey, you can work less, and if you don’t work less, then you’re gonna be a sucker.”
So pop culture, portrayals of work in the media, educational distinctions that are basically presented as a false choice, in my opinion, all combined to drive the cost of college through the roof — $1.3 trillion in student loans right now, as a result of this cookie-cutter approach to what a good education is — and on the other end, where does most of the opportunity exist today? Well, it’s in the skills gap. It’s 5.6 million available jobs right now that nobody seems to want, that are sitting there waiting to be filled. It’s not a coincidence that 75% of those jobs don’t require a four-year degree, but rather training for the very jobs that we’re talking about right now. So, again, kind of a meandering answer, but the reason blue-collar jobs fell out of favor is because alternative education fell out of favor, it’s because the people who do the kinds of work that we’re talking about started being portrayed in a negative light, and here we are. The skills gap’s not a mystery, it’s just a reflection of what we value. So, too, is the cost of a four-year degree, in my opinion.
Brett McKay: Right, and the irony is this playbook that we’ve been pushing on our culture, I think it’s just resulted in a lot of unhappiness. You have people with four-year degrees, up to their eyeballs in debt, working some office job that they hate, and barely making ends meet.
Mike Rowe: Yeah. Look, the hell of it is, you know, you … Here’s what happens to me that’s always problematic. I’ll do an interview like this, and everyone will more or less agree that there’s a problem worth talking about, but what comes back over the net is “Mike is anti-college,” and sometimes anti-education, and nothing could be further from the truth. The problem that you’re describing happens because of money. It’s not that a liberal-arts degree is bad. I’ve got one, and it serves me well, but I got mine in 1984, and it cost $12,000. Today, the same degree from the same school costs $85,000. So if you spend that kind of money, and borrow that kind of money, and wind up suddenly in a cubicle, doing something that, as it turns out, you really didn’t want to do, how do you get off the road? You’ve already majored in your major, you’ve already borrowed the money, and now you’ve got to pay all that stuff off, and you don’t really have the freedom or the flexibility to hit the reset button without, you know, punching out of the whole proposition with a giant pile of debt.
That’s really what the problem is, and I feel badly for this generation, because they get a bad rap, in my opinion. Obviously, there’s room for improvement everywhere, but, you know, we raised an entire generation of kids to believe that if they borrow the money, and if they get the degree, then they will get the job of their dreams, and then they will be happy. That entire proposition is fallacious, and you can see it on the faces of dissatisfied workers, not just in cubicles across the country, but in all kinds of jobs, because so many people have come out of our educational system convinced that the key to job satisfaction is finding the job that will satisfy you. And of all the lessons that came out of Dirty Jobs, I think the biggest one is the fact that that belief is completely and totally upside down.
Brett McKay: So don’t follow your passion, that’s bad advice.
Mike Rowe: I think it’s bad advice, but I would never say “Don’t be passionate about what you do.” See, this is the … The fun part of Dirty Jobs, once it really got its feet under it, and once it became a thing, was that it allowed me to look back honestly and question some of the advice that I’d gotten in my life, and I think a lot of other people have as well. “Follow your passion” is somewhere near the top, the worst advice ever given. It’s right up there with “Work smart, not hard.” But “Always follow your passion,” the first time I saw it, it was written on a photo of a guy in a kayak, paddling on some lake with mist on the surface, and there were butterflies in the background, and maybe even a unicorn. It was just awful, you know, and under it, it just says, “Always follow your passion.” And I’m just like, “What … What … What does that even mean?”
So on Dirty Jobs, the corollary was “Never follow your passion, but always, always bring it with you.” Passion’s too important to ignore, but it’s too fickle to follow, and I just … I think … Look, if you really want to see what following your passion looks like, watch any of the first episodes of American Idol. Any of the seasons, episodes one through five, where you see tens of thousands of people, absolutely passionate about singing, right? Absolutely passionate about their artistry and their love of vocalizing. And they show up, and they audition, and it’s incredible to me that so many people can’t sing; that’s obvious. What’s incredible is that these 18, 19, 20-year-old people are realizing for the first time in their life — the first time in their life — that they can’t sing.
That’s amazing to me, and that disconnect … I mean, you can see it in their faces when they realize, this is the first time somebody told them they’re no good at a thing that they like. And so it’s a great truth that we used to teach early on, but now a lot of people don’t find out until it’s very, very, very late in their career. But the reality is, it’s entirely possible to be very passionate about something that you suck at, and that’s useful, especially if you’re going to attach money to your pursuit.
So if you’re going to go out into the world to try and make a living, you know, the big lesson on Dirty Jobs, time and time again, the people I met all said the same thing: “I didn’t go looking to be a septic tank cleaner, I went looking for an opportunity, and that started by watching where everybody else was heading, and going in the other direction. Then I bought a septic tank cleaning truck, and then I hired three people. Then I bought another truck, and then another truck after that. Now I’ve got 12 people, we clean septic tanks, I’m a millionaire, I’ve got a summer house and a margarita machine next to my pool. Yes, I clean septic tanks, and I’m passionate about my life and my career, but I didn’t start … I didn’t get here by sitting down one day when I was 18 years old and going, ‘Okay, what is going to make me happy? This will make me happy; therefore, I’m going to go get that, and I’m not going to be happy until I do.'”
Look, we do the same thing with romance, right? Same exact thing. Happiness vis-à-vis romance today requires us to find our soulmate. Well, where’s our soulmate? Depends who you ask, you know? Maybe she’s on Match, maybe he’s on Tinder, maybe it’s eHarmony, maybe it’s in the bar down the street that … You know? It just seems like a tough way to go, if your romantic happiness is going to be entirely contingent upon your ability to find the one other person walking around on the planet who you were meant to be with. It’s no less nuts, in my view, to approach the wide world of work and say, “Okay, all this opportunity’s out there, but the one that’s going to make me happy, that’s the one I gotta find, and then I can be happy.” We just make it pretty hard for ourselves, I think, and the dirty jobbers I met did not fall victim to that.
Brett McKay: We’ve had a guest on the show, guy named Cal Newport. He wrote a book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, and he agrees, following your passion is terrible advice. He says, “Passion comes whenever you get really good at a job, and you see that you’re effective in the world, and that you provide value.” That’s when you start feeling passionate about the job, that’s when you start feeling satisfaction with your job, is when you see that, but it’s not chasing your passion.
Mike Rowe: Yeah, good for him. I couldn’t agree more. Gladwell put it, I thought, pretty well too. A couple of books ago, he talked about “meaningful work.” Meaningful work is the thing that ultimately will lead to satisfaction faster than anything else. But again, the trick is, there is no book out there called Meaningful Work, right? But we act as though there is. We’re telling our kids today that this work over here is meaningful and important and worth your time; this work over here is not. Why we do that is really, I think, one of the great questions. I’ve never heard it answered properly. I’ve tried to, but I usually just ramble on into incoherence, because it’s almost unknowable, but we can’t help ourselves.
As a society, as a culture, as parents, as teachers, we simply can’t help but somehow prioritize jobs into this jacked-up ranking system that is completely and totally counterintuitive to the result we want. You can Google “100 top jobs,” and you’ll have thousands of pages, thousands of pages filled with hundreds and hundreds of surveys about what the best jobs are. You can do the same thing with schools. Every year, every year, every major publication rolls out the top colleges in the country and the top jobs in the country. And you’ll never find a trade school on that list, and you’ll never find the jobs that are begging to be filled right now on that list. We just double down on the worst odds in the world, and we make it really, really hard for kids to feel excited about learning a skill.
That’s why we do what we do in this foundation thing. If you train somebody to weld, well, then you can start working in nine months at 60 grand. Two years later, you can easily be making six figures. But beyond that, the business of mastering a trade opens an entire set of doors that most people didn’t even know existed, and so “way leads on to way,” as the poet said, and before you know it, you’ll find meaning in your work, whatever the work is.
Brett McKay: Let’s talk about some of the big-picture societal consequences of this skill gap you talked about. The skill gap is there’s jobs that are available, ready for workers; there just isn’t anyone there to take them, because they don’t have the appropriate skills. I mean, how does that affect us as a country, on a high level?
Mike Rowe: Well, it’s a micro/macro thing. So, look, on a micro level, no pun intended, its consequences are devastating. For an individual who goes down the wrong road simply because he or she didn’t know other opportunities were available, that, to me, is the very definition of a tragedy. I mean, Aristotle said a tragedy was that moment in the narrative where the protagonist comes face to face with the unescapable truth of their own identity, and when you realize that your identity was based on the pursuit of a thing that you never really cared for or understood, at the expense of all the other opportunities that are out there, that really is nothing short of a personal micro tragedy.
To answer your question, on a macro level, I think the skills gap … Not to overstate it, but I think it’s a matter of national security. A balanced workforce is kind of like a coin, you know? Each side, heads and tails, is equally important. We don’t have a balanced workforce today, and the most obvious ramification of that is supply and demand. Call a plumber with a plumbing emergency right now. Tell me how long it takes for him to get there — or her — and tell me how much it costs. I guarantee you the first number — how long does it take him or her to get there — is going to be a lot larger than it was 10 years ago, and the second number — how much does it cost — that’s going to be a lot larger too. So the cost of taking care of our infrastructure is going through the roof: plumbing, electric, heating, air conditioning.
I’m talking about our personal infrastructures in our homes, but the same thing is happening on a macro level, and I think, when I look at the current administration’s desire to invest a trillion dollars in infrastructure repair, I say the same thing I did eight years ago, when the last guy promised three million shovel-ready jobs in 2008. I remember, I wrote a letter to the president back then, and I said, “Look, I’m pulling for you, good luck. I’ve got this foundation; if I can help, I will. But the short version from my position is this: If you’re saying there’s three million shovel-ready jobs, then you have to understand that you’re talking to a country that really doesn’t admire the business of picking up a shovel. You just have to understand that, and you have to hit the PR element of your program squarely on the head.”
Eight years later, I said the same thing to the current guy. If you’re going to spend a trillion dollars to open up infrastructure repair, you have to … You surely know that we do not have a workforce standing by that’s trained to do work. It’s going to take years of training people and getting them the skills that they need, and that’s not going to happen until or unless we celebrate these opportunities for what they are. So on a national level, the skills gap is nothing less than a matter of national security.
5.6 million jobs open right now, and Brett, no one talks about them, and we don’t talk about them because it’s … Well, it’s unflattering. The existence of all of that opportunity in a country like this, it doesn’t speak well of us. But more to the point, it contradicts the prevailing narrative, and the prevailing narrative says if we bring jobs to the country, we’re going to put more people to work. I’m not saying that’s not true — it is, it is true — but it’s not a panacea, and it’s not an action for which there’s an equal or opposite reaction. Our current narrative, in my opinion, basically says that the more opportunity we can create, the more people will go back to work. It’s not untrue, but it’s not completely true, because the existence of this skills gap proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that the existence of opportunity alone is not enough to get everybody working.
So those two narratives collide, and honestly, I’ve never seen anybody on TV reconcile it in a persuasive way. How do you reconcile 60, 70 million people out of the workforce who could be working, with millions and millions of open jobs that nobody’s excited about doing? Whatever your answer is is probably going to get sucked into some polemic, because everything is political today, and that it’s going to get drowned out. So the skills gap continues to exist, because we keep lending money we don’t have to kids who are never going to be able to pay it back, to encourage them to get a four-year degree which, while valuable, does not train them to do the jobs that actually exist.
Brett McKay: And I imagine the skills gap is only going to get bigger as baby boomers start to retire, these guys who own plumbing shops or carpentry shops. There’s no one else there to replace them.
Mike Rowe: There’s going to be a reckoning, and much like the peripeteia we were talking about before, it’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to be the flick of a switch. Right now, you can see it in different states manifesting in different ways. I worked for years on a campaign in Alabama called Go Build Alabama, which was motivated primarily by the construction industry down there, who is in a full-on panic. A full-on panic. The average skilled tradesman in Alabama is north of 55, and these aren’t jobs you do into your 80s. These guys are going to retire, and there is no one there, there is no one standing by, there’s no new generation of trained apprentices waiting to step in.
The skills gap in Idaho is different. They’ve got a different situation up there, because they actually export a lot of materials all over the world that people really aren’t up to speed on, and over the next 15 years, the billions of dollars of opportunity that exists for manufacturing is literally sitting right there, and that state has a pretty bad record of kids coming out of college … Sorry, out of high school, and going into any kind of additional training, college or otherwise. So they’re looking very specifically at a massive chunk of opportunity that they’re going to lose if they don’t get some kind of giant training program in place, where people can get the skills that are so clearly going to be needed in the next couple of years.
Georgia has another challenge, Arizona has a different challenge, Iowa has a different challenge. Some of these are fundamentally agrarian challenges; other are manufacturing. It’s different in different geographies in the country, so that’s why it’s kind of hard to say anything smart that sums the whole thing up, and I’d be suspicious, honestly, of anyone who tries. But in a very general way, the skills gap manifests in different ways in different places, but in all cases, the first step of the remedy is the same: We have to make a more persuasive case for the opportunities that actually exist, and the educational alternatives that will train people for those opportunities.
If we don’t do that as a society … Back to your prior question, you know, what’s the real threat on a macro level? If we can’t persuade the majority of Americans to be suitably gobsmacked by the miracle of affordable electricity, smooth roads and runways, modern plumbing, all the things that make civilized life possible, if we no longer give a damn about those things, then I don’t know how to fix the problem, because it has to start with a larger shared collective appreciation for the society that we have. If we don’t have that, then we’re just going to have to slip a little bit further down before we hit bottom, and somebody slaps us upside the head.
Brett McKay: So yeah, different geographical locations have different demands for different types of blue-collar jobs, so it’s hard to say … I mean, I guess, are there professions that, overall, the country needs more of? Like welding, is there a big skills gap there?
Mike Rowe: I’d put it somewhere near the top, to tell you the truth. We’ve had about 600, maybe 800 people come through my little foundation, and welding is somewhere near the top of the list of the skill that we’re most often asked to help.
Brett McKay: Well, here’s a question. One reason I’ve heard people say, “Oh, I’m not gonna go into the trades” is, like, well, it doesn’t pay as well as, say, a white-collar job, being an attorney, or being a business manager. What’s the pay like for these blue-collar trades?
Mike Rowe: Well, look, the actuarial charts, the statistical charts, they’ll give you an idea, factoring in millions of people in all different areas. And I’ve seen most of that, and honestly, my feeling is “So what?” How is it … I mean, a writer in Spokane versus a writer in Tallahassee, there’s absolutely no reason to assume one is going to be making anything similar to the other. A welder in Dakota right now is going to be making more money than a welder somewhere else, guaranteed. So the geographical impact on blue-collar wages, I do think, is real — more real, maybe, than on white-collar — but again, I don’t know what to conclude from that, in a world where you’re either willing to relocate or you’re not, and I think that applies equally to both blue- and white-collar.
I don’t know when it happened, this aversion to mobility. I mean, the country fundamentally formed because people were willing to go from one coast to the other. They’d go wherever the opportunity was. We were a very transient people. We’ve become really sedentary. You know, I’m amazed, personally, when I sit down and talk to people who are resistant to exploring a career in the blue-collar trades, or in the construction trades, the first thing they’ll say is “Well, the money’s not as good.” And I can say, “Okay, look. If I can show you where the money’s better, and how the money’s better, will you give it a shot?” And they’ll say, “Sure,” and then I’ll walk them through.
I mean, look, I can take the same statistics that show a four-year degree is always better, and I can conclude a completely different conclusion. It’s easy to manipulate the numbers. But it never really comes down to that. What it comes down to next is people are like, “Well, tell me again where I have to go?” And that’s almost always where it falls apart. We’re just … We want the job that we’ve identified that will make us happy, we want that job at the money that we believe is fair, and we want that job in the ZIP code where we currently live. And those three things are primarily what I run into most often with people who are resistant to at least looking at the opportunities as they exist today. I’m not sure I answered your question, because it-
Brett McKay: You did. We had an economist on our podcast, Tyler Cowen, who just published a book called The Complacent Class, and he talks about how we’ve become less mobile in our country. People just want to stay put. Yeah, you’re right, we used to go travel the country for opportunities; we no longer do that anymore. And he makes all these arguments that it’s hurting the economy, but it’s also causing us to become more segregated, and a lot of downstream effects of us becoming less mobile. So if you haven’t checked that book out, check it out. It’s really interesting.
Mike Rowe: What’s it called again?
Brett McKay: The Complacent Class.
Mike Rowe: I’m writing it down right now. It reminds me of a thing … There used to be this thing called The Popcorn Report. Woman called herself “Faith Popcorn.” This was back in the ’80s, but she talked about it in terms of our unwillingness, or our growing unwillingness to even venture out of our own homes. And she was looking at the coming technology and predicting that we’d have something … She called it “cocooning,” where we would just, more and more and more, build our homes in a way that allows us to stay in them more and more. And then, of course, with delivery services, and better technology, better TVs, everything else, cocooning turned into something she called “burrowing.” So we just kind of doubled down on the whole notion of a cocoon, and so essentially, we’re here now.
We’re more connected than we’ve ever been, thanks to the kind of technology we’re using right now, and social media, but we’re more disconnected than we’ve ever been as a result, and less mobile at the same time. I’m not sure what’s next. Where do you go after burrowing? Probably like the … You’re going to wind up in an Altered States tank, like William Hurt, you know? We’re just going to be there, suspended in some kind of gooey animation, completely connected and mentally fulfilled, but … It’s the atrophy that’s going to kill us in the end.
Brett McKay: Besides the blue-collar trades, are there other trades where we’re seeing a skills gap? Because I can think of one off the top of my head, is tailoring. My tailor, he’s this 96-year-old Polish immigrant, he survived the Holocaust, he’s here in town, and I go like, “Why are you still working?” And he says, like, “There’s no one else to do the work. I can’t retire.” He says, “Yeah, no one wants to go into tailoring or learn a trade.” And the thing is, the money’s good. Like, he’s expensive, and he can be expensive, because he’s the only one who can do what he does really well.
Mike Rowe: Yeah, look, there’s a tension between what I do, what I want, and what I hope for. I’m a fan of the guy you just described, and I’m a fan of the plumbers and the electricians and the pipefitters, and all the people that I rely on. I want them to do well, but at the same time, I’m a consumer, and so when my toilet explodes, when my engine just falls out of the car, how much do I want to pay? Right? So this is where labor and work sort of diverge, you know, they’ve come to mean different things. I love the fact that your 96-year-old Polish tailor is still making a great living, but I hate the fact that no one has looked at that industry and said, “Good grief, look at all the opportunity here.”
The answer to your question is sure, the skills gap applies to any vocation that requires a skill that can only be attained through training and apprenticeship. And I can’t think of a single vocation that relies on those two things where a gap hasn’t manifested. So yeah, you can talk about cosmetology, you can talk about tailor, you can talk about all that stuff. The only distinction I make — and it’s just a fact — some jobs fundamentally improve … Call them the “wants” of our life. You want your suit to look good; you want to be able to get a haircut in a way that doesn’t require you to schedule the thing three months in advance.
But you need, you need your toilet to flush when you hit the handle. You need your lights to come on when you flick the switch. We need this technology you and I are using right now to function properly for this interview to occur. So there’s certain vocations upon which the entire country depends, and there’s certain vocations that we like. So I do draw … I do make a distinction. It’s not a judgment, but I make a distinction between a really great plumber and a really great tailor, because life goes on without a really great tailor. With plumbing, not so much.
Brett McKay: That’s true, that is true. Not so much. So tell us a little bit about the foundations you’ve started to promote blue-collar trade work.
Mike Rowe: Well, actually, not long after that whole sheep castration thing, it became so clear to me … This was in 2008, you know, and when the economy tanked, the obvious narrative, and the obvious headlines that we saw day after day after day, focused on unemployment numbers. And as the unemployment rate nationally crept up to around 10%, everywhere I went on Dirty Jobs, I saw Help Wanted signs. I mean everywhere, all 50 states. And so it was that awareness that there were two conflicting narratives going on — a widening skills gap contemporaneous with rising unemployment — that made me think, “You know, if this show has any kind of worthwhile legacy, maybe it should be me talking about the opportunities that exist that no one else talks about.”
So that’s how the foundation started. In 2008, on Labor Day, I asked the fans of Dirty Jobs, who happily numbered in the millions, to help me build a trade resource center online that collated the alternative educational programs state by state, along with apprenticeships and fellowships, and all of the things that weren’t a four-year degree that would lead to jobs that actually existed. And the fans of the show were amazing. They just overwhelmed us with information and links, so I hired people to try and organize that, and then I build a trade resource center and put it online, and we called it mikeroweWORKS.
It was useful to a point. It wasn’t a job board, but really what it was was just proof positive that opportunity was everywhere. And that was a useful message, I think, for people to hear in 2009. I think it’s useful to hear now. But the trade resource center became very difficult to manage, because it was so enormous, and I’m not an IT guy, and I didn’t want to spend so much time organizing things through some sort of modern-age Dewey Decimal System. It was killing us. And besides, the more important element from building the trade resource center was just the idea that I could go out and say, “Look what the fans of this show did. Look at the opportunities that exist.” And as I started doing that, companies started coming and saying, “You know, we have a lot of those opportunities right here. How can we help?” And so I started partnering with lots and lots of different companies to focus on jobs that existed under their roof.
And then? Then people wanted to contribute, and I didn’t really have a mechanism for accepting money, and I didn’t know what to do with it, so I resisted that for a while, but ultimately, it seemed like a sensible thing to do to set up a scholarship program. So mikeroweWORKS kind of evolved over the years, but today, it’s still a PR campaign for jobs that actually exist, but primarily, it’s a scholarship fund. We call it a work ethic scholarship program. We look for people who are willing to get the necessary training to pursue the kinds of jobs that we’re talking about, and that’s been pretty rewarding, and it’s been good. Not huge, by foundation standards — we’ve given away a little more than $4 million since we started — but they’re modest stipends, you know, $2,000 here, $5,000 there. People who want to be a tailor, people who want to be a plumber, we can help, and so we have.
And honestly, of all the things dividing the country right now, the thing that worries me the most is the divide between a big group of people who seem convinced that the system’s totally rigged and there is no hope, and a group of people who are convinced otherwise. So I’m in that group. I know for a fact that there’s not a single place in the country where somebody isn’t hiring within an industry wherever anybody is sitting right now. I know that, and I’ve seen it again and again. I’ve seen what can happen if people enthusiastically go after the first few rungs on the ladder, and I can prove it. So that’s why the foundation evolved, that’s why I continue to work on it to this day, and with luck, we’ll continue to move the needle in the future.
Brett McKay: Besides the foundation, you’ve also started a podcast yourself, The Way I Heard It. What was the impetus behind that, and what sort of stuff will listeners find on your show?
Mike Rowe: Honestly, that thing turned into … That was another unexpected peripeteia. It was a year ago, I was saying to a friend of mind, “You know, Paul Harvey was a” … You remember Paul Harvey, by any chance?
Brett McKay: Oh, of course, yeah, yeah, definitely. I think he’s from Oklahoma. I’m from Oklahoma. He’s-
Mike Rowe: Yeah, I think he might be too. He worked in Chicago mostly, but he had a show called The Rest of the Story. It was three five-minute mysteries; he’d do them every day. And I loved them, because they were basically biographies and little history lessons, but served up as a mystery, so you don’t really know who he’s talking about until the last sentence. It just occurred to me that nobody was doing anything like that. And by the way, Paul Harvey, Charles Kuralt, George Plimpton, Studs Terkel, you know, these guys are all dead, and they left a huge smoking … They just don’t make them, and people don’t tell stories like that anymore. And I would in no way compare myself to them; I can’t fill their footsteps, but I can follow in their footsteps, maybe. And so, with that in mind, given the amount of time I was spending on airplanes, I just thought, “You know, I’m gonna try and write one of these mysteries a week, in the style of Paul Harvey.”
Anyway, we started doing it a year ago, and I started posting them under this podcast called The Way I Heard It. I didn’t pay much attention to it, because I don’t really understand the whole podcast thing, and I was really writing them just to entertain myself. But somebody called a few months ago and said, “Listen, these things have been downloaded 22 million times.” And I was reading them on Facebook as well, and they were viewed something like 30 million times, so he said, “You should maybe do some more,” so I’m doing that, and it’s really fun. I’m not a writer by trade, but I love to write. These have been rewarding, and the feedback’s been great, so as soon as we’re finished today, I’m going to go upstairs and write one, and we’ll post it, and we’ll see where it goes, but so far, so good.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Well, Mike, this has been a great conversation. Thank you so much for your time; it’s been an absolute pleasure.
Mike Rowe: Any time. I appreciate what you guys are doing as well, and I hope we can do it again.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Mike Rowe. You know him as the host of Dirty Jobs. You can find out more information about Mike’s work, what he’s doing with mikeroweWORKS, at mikerowe.com and profoundlydisconnected.com. Also, check out our show notes at aom.is/rowe, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at artofmanliness.com. If you enjoy this show, have gotten something out of it, I’d appreciate if you’d take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. Helps us out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.
Last updated: December 6, 2017