Mike Rowe

‘Dirty jobs’ in danger? Mike Rowe weighs in on America’s growing skills gap

By Alyssa Hurst

Mike Rowe

Rowe (left) with a Project JumpStart participant.

Every morning when you wake up, you flip a switch and the lights, incredibly, turn on. You turn the handle on a faucet and clean water, as if by magic, flows out. You put your garbage out on collection day, and by the time you return home from the office, it’s as if it never existed at all. Electricians, plumbers and sanitation workers are the crux of polite society, and yet it is becoming increasingly more difficult for employers in these industries to fill the need for trained workers.

This is a challenge that Mike Rowe, of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs and CNN’s Somebody’s Gotta Do It has witnessed firsthand. Rowe created his own foundation, mikeroweWORKS, and partnered with Baltimore-based Project JumpStart to connect three very important dots: job seekers, training and open positions. While Rowe was in town for this year’s Build Baltimore gala, SmartCEO caught up with him to discuss what he sees as one of America’s greatest challenges.

Tell me a little bit about Project JumpStart and why you decided to work with them.

Rowe: They had reached out a couple of years ago and asked about me speaking at an event. It was very small and it was the kind of thing where it was like, “Well, I doubt we are going to be able to work it out, but what’s the story?” And the story was just amazing. The more we heard about it, the more we were convinced that we should do something, because I grew up here [in Baltimore], and for 10 years this organization has been specifically trying to close the skills gap, which my organization does as well, by focusing on the inner-city men, primarily, who had no skills, no education, who in many cases were homeless and often non-violent ex-offenders.

A pre-apprenticeship program is the essence of what Project JumpStart is, and it’s not completely unique. What is unexampled are the results. So over 10 years, they have probably put 800 people through the program, 75 percent of whom are still working. That is unheard of. I mean, it’s actually outrageous if you compare other like-minded programs. So, long story short, here’s this program in my hometown that is addressing the skills gap in a way that is completely unique and effective. I came and I spoke, and then we started challenging other companies to help us. We have raised some money for them, and now we are a booster.

I know that there is a focus particularly on accountability and work ethic in Project JumpStart. Why is that so important to this particular program?

Rowe: It’s important to me and my foundation just as a rule. Part of the reason we are partnered with JumpStart now is because we award work-ethic scholarships. The thing that really convinced me that they were doing something different is the whole idea of consequences and accountability. What JumpStart really does is identify the basic obstacles that keep a person from succeeding and eliminate them. So, transportation — if you can’t get to the job, it doesn’t matter. You can’t physically get to the job. They have an arrangement with an auto-giving kind of thing, where they will pick you up and they’ll get you to work.

And they also [function] as a kind of HR department that most companies wish they had. I’m talking about soft skills. If you show up late, you’re out. If you don’t tuck your shirt in, that’s a problem. If your cell phone goes off in the middle of [work], that’s a problem. You get a stipend. It’s not a ton of money, but you get enough money to stay on your feet and get here and there during the program. But if you mess it up, you lose it. So, part of [JumpStart’s] success is based on the fact that not everyone is going to get through. As an employer, you’re qualifying more than skill. You’re qualifying attitude, ethic and the sorts of things that all employers secretly crave.

You mentioned that mikeroweWorks does a lot of other things in addition to JumpStart. Can you talk about some of those things?

Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe attending the 2017 Build Baltimore gala.

Rowe: Most broadly, we focus on any job in the skills gap — jobs that actually exist, that for whatever reason are unloved, unsung and unpopular, and almost always jobs that require training as opposed to a four-year degree. The idea evolved out of Dirty Jobs. In 2008, when the economy tanked, I was still out in the world working every day in every different state, and … everywhere I went, there were “help wanted” signs. And I thought, something is going on in the country that nobody is talking about. So the skills gap proved, even at the height of the recession, that opportunity existed. My foundation evolved as an attempt to identify those opportunities and remind people that they were still there. That’s the first thing. The second thing is the work-ethic scholarship program. We try and reward the behavior we want to encourage, so we give money to people who make a persuasive case for themselves and convince us that they are willing to focus on a skill that’s actually in demand. We have put about 500 or 600 people through that program, and while that’s not directly related to JumpStart, they are doing basically the same thing through a different lens.

From our perspective, it’s popular today, politically especially, to talk about the creation of jobs. Just the other day, the President was talking to manufacturing CEOs about bringing jobs back, and that sounds great. Who would be against that? But the problem is, these CEOs are telling him, “Look, we have jobs. What we need are enthused, qualified people, eager to be great at them.” So I think part of the challenge that most big companies have already encountered, that the country is going to come face to face with soon, is this idea that 5.8 million jobs are available. That says something about us, and it’s not really flattering. So we need to make a more persuasive case for those jobs, and make sure the people who are looking for work understand that they are there, and they are legitimate and viable.

You mentioned manufacturing as one of these unsung and unpopular job areas. What are some others that you have seen a need in?

Rowe: Beyond factory jobs, I’m talking about plumbing, heating and air conditioning, electric, welding. There are companies right now with 700 or 800 open positions for welders. And the welding schools are training them as fast as they can, but so often these schools wind up getting this weird bad rap for being a for-profit school. If you compare the cost of getting your welding certification to the cost of getting a four-year degree, there is no comparison. The biggest difference is, those jobs are waiting and available. Whereas jobs in medieval studies and [political science], not so much.

There are all of these jobs and all of these people that need them, so where is the disconnect? Is it the stigma against these jobs? Why does that exist?

Rowe: If I were a social anthropologist, I would have the answer. I think it’s social first and foremost. I think it’s cultural. I think most parents have a normal desire to see their kids do better than they did, whatever that means. And so we do a lot of things to quantify that. You’ve probably seen lists of the top hundred jobs; you’ve seen lists of the top hundred schools. There are no trade schools on that list and there are very, very few jobs in the skills gap on that list. … We just ignore them. But then when we portray them on television — for instance, if I say “plumber” right now and you imagine a plumber, he’s 300 pounds with a giant butt crack. It’s those kinds of cultural portrayals, combined with a really steady drumbeat of “four-year degrees for everyone.”

When you have that huge cultural push for universal college, then you are going to see tuition get really expensive, especially when you free up unlimited money to borrow. So when people say, how did college get so expensive, I say, “How could it not have?” … What we are really saying is, the best path for the most people is the most expensive path, and consequently, all these other approaches to learning, from two-year schools to trade schools to apprenticeships, those start to feel like vocational consolation prizes. …

So it’s kind of like, let somebody else do it. And that’s the thing. In my view, it’s way more complicated than what I’m saying, but part of the solution in closing the skills gap has to include a concerted effort to change the way the country feels about those jobs. And that’s PR, that’s portrayals, that’s confronting the stigmas and the stereotypes head on and challenging them and making a case for, well, some of the people that come out of the JumpStart program. Guys who were homeless seven years ago are now making $52 to $100 an hour as master electricians. Those guys should be on a poster, and they should be headline news.

Mike Rowe

Rowe meeting with a JumpStart participant.

Speaking of that, have you had the opportunity to meet some of the folks that are coming out of JumpStart?

Rowe: In fact, last year … I interviewed half a dozen of these guys, and their stories are all different but all the same. In some way, shape or form, they went splat, whether it was from bad luck or bad choices. It could be drug addiction, it could be just straight-up homelessness. Everyone’s got a sad story and they all break your heart. Many of them came out of prison, but all of them affirmatively decided that’s it. Is there a way out, and if so, what do I need to do? And JumpStart, for them, was the first rung on the ladder, and, consequently, the most important rung. It reminded them that accountability matters, it gave them a useful skill and it hooked them up with an actual opportunity. It works because it’s so self-evidently logical that it can’t not work.

So let’s talk about all of these positions out there. People can come up with a lot of reasons why it’s not great to go into a trade or why a trade school is second best, but what are some of the great things that can come out of these positions?

Rowe: I’d say it’s never about the job. It’s always about the jobber. I know lots of miserable reporters. I know lots of miserable stock brokers. I know lots of schizophrenic, and just kind of sad, millionaires. On Dirty Jobs, a lot of that got turned on its head, because you’d meet someone who was very successful that just happened to be covered in someone else’s shit. So it’s like, wait a minute. You don’t look like success, but you are.

When that show was in its heyday, the question I always got was, “How come everybody is having such a good time?” because it looks like everybody ought to be weeping. You’re sweating and you’re miserable and you’re in these very difficult situations. Why is everybody so engaged? And part of the answer is — because they know. They know something that a lot of people with jobs don’t. They know that in their line of work, if they call in sick for a week … party’s over. You flip the switch and the light doesn’t go on. You flush the toilet and your poop doesn’t go away. Two, three days later, you have what we call a riot. So they are keeping civilization on the rails. The work is meaningful in ways that a lot of people have forgotten, but they haven’t. That’s why you find on construction sites and in some cases on factory floors and in many of the places that I went to, you find this band-of-brothers sort of mentality. It really is a shared awareness that what they do matters, even if the majority of polite society has forgotten.

Many people in the business community are aware that the skills gap exists, and they are lamenting that, but what could businesses be doing better to help close it?

Rowe: I would challenge that not everyone is aware of it. And I would also say that even people who are aware of it, in many cases, deny it. If you talk about — and I’m not a political guy and my foundation doesn’t take sides — but ask yourself why 5.8 million jobs are unfilled when nearly 80 million people are out of the workforce who could be working. … It’s hard not to look at that and then say “Why?” What is it about people that they are not rushing to these opportunities? …

People are not looking at vocational opportunities and going “We need to celebrate these things,” because they’ve got their own biases and they’ve got their own inertia politically, so you immediately sort of take up sides. … You can’t just assume that everyone acknowledges the existence of the skills gap. There’s a lot of controversy around it. Personally, I’m 100 percent convinced it’s real, because I’ve seen the “help wanted” signs in every state, and I’ve talked to the people that are hiring.

So is part of the solution making sure people can get past that and acknowledge it, and start working toward fixing it in a productive way?

Rowe: I don’t know how else to say it except the companies need to look for and reward work ethic where they find it, and people need to understand that many of these skilled jobs that are in the gap, it’s not the final destination. That’s another fallacy that people talk about all the time. You say okay, I’m going to get my plumbing certification and then I’m going to be a plumber for the rest of my life. The end. Well, you know how many businesses that create jobs are run by people who started as plumbers or electricians? The road into a successful small business is often times initiated by the mastery of a skill. People don’t talk about that. When we took vo-tec [vocational-technical] out of high school, we didn’t replace it with anything. If you look at everyone’s career trajectory as a ladder, we took the bottom rungs off and it just makes it so much harder to climb.

… I think what it really is is just balance. You can’t talk about a quarter in terms of heads being better than tails. It’s not a quarter without both sides. So you can’t talk about a workforce without talking about blue collar and white color. We don’t do that. We have blue collar over here and white collar over here. We have good jobs over here and bad jobs over here. It’s crazy. …

So what is the consequence of not addressing this in a meaningful way?

Rowe: Remember the movie Idiocracy? That’s the consequence. We’ll be living in a world where no one can hang a picture anymore. The more and more we rely on a service economy, the more vulnerable we become to being unable to serve ourselves. It might be more efficient to outsource and offshore and have our stuff made somewhere else. I don’t disagree. It is more efficient. But there’s just something about our identity that we are going to lose if we don’t celebrate the business of making things. …

The skills gap isn’t going to close by magic, and whatever the solution to its ultimate closing is, it’s going to require the 300 million Americans who rely on the people who do the work to have a heightened sense of appreciation and awareness of what ultimately is driving that divide. Until that happens, we are pushing the rock up the hill.

Alyssa Hurst is the associate editor of SmartCEO. Contact her at ahurst@smartceo.com.