Mike Rowe is best known for his stint hosting the Discovery Channel’s longrunning Dirty Jobs, where he performed the sort of work we all rely on but don’t want to think about too much, from cleaning septic tanks to putting hot tar on roofs to disposing of medical waste. Rowe frequently talks about the value of the hard work that’s too often dismissed by a society fixated on sending everyone to college.
In July, Reason‘s Nick Gillespie caught up with Rowe at FreedomFest, held this year in Memphis, Tennessee. They talked about why men have fallen behind women in school and work, whether young people have been misled about the value of college, and how Rowe’s foundation—mikeroweWORKS—matches young people interested in learning trades with employers who need applicants.
Reason: You’ve talked about how we’ve made work the enemy, about how vocational and technical schooling at the high school level has all but disappeared in a mad rush to push people into a college track.
Rowe: We gave college a giant P.R. campaign—that it really did need—starting back in the ’70s. All that great press came at the expense of virtually every other form of education. As a result, we created a giant gap in the work force between blue- and white-collar jobs—white were clearly ascendant, blue clearly subordinate.
The rift in our work force and the labor shortage we’re seeing today can be walked right back to the moment we decided to take shop class out
of high school. So many things followed that as a result. One of those things,
in a completely tertiary way, was a show called Dirty Jobs, which
basically gave me permission to crawl through sewers and channel my inner
That crazy show blew up, and then the headlines caught up to the themes of the show. So in 2008, Dirty Jobs had been on for five years. Suddenly the country goes into a recession. Work finds its way into the headlines, along with the skills gap. People started to call me to see if I had an opinion, and I did.
Honestly, it wasn’t so much mine as what was left over from buying lots of beer for lots of people who we featured on the show and listening to them bitch, complain, moan, and just wax on about the challenges of running a small business that required skilled labor.
So after hearing a lot of that, mikeroweWORKS started.
Fifteen years later, I haven’t changed a thing. We’re still saying, “Look, the opportunities that exist are real. They’re underserved, they’re underpromoted, and the skills gap has widened.” Of the 11 million open jobs today, the vast majority don’t require a four-year degree. They require training. So does that make them trade jobs? Not necessarily, but a big chunk of them are.
The conversation used to be, “Let me talk about the myths and misperceptions that keep people out of plumbing so people who might want to jump into that trade will benefit.” Then it was, “Well, let’s talk about some of the stigmas and the stereotypes that keep parents and guidance counselors from promoting these trades because now we’re just getting in our own way.” Today, it’s just, “How long do you want to wait for a plumber or an electrician?” We have to have people who don’t work in the trades or who don’t employ tradespeople to realize that they nevertheless have skin in the game.
Has the plumbing industry—and carpentry or construction—changed the way they go after workers?
Some have, some haven’t. We can learn a lot [from] the recruiting messages that we see in the armed forces. They’re different. The Army has a different proposition than the Navy. The Navy wants you to go on an adventure. The Army wants you to be all you can be, and you’ll leave better for it as a result. The Coast Guard—it’s also a variation on that theme.
I suspect the Coast Guard has a lot of people going there because that’s the safest branch.
It feels like it. Now the Seabees, different deal, they’re trades. So all of
these are interesting, right until you get to the Marines, who say, “Probably
not for you.” There is something fundamentally interesting about the challenge of recruiting into the Marines versus everybody else.
It might be a bit of a stretch, but I think employers have made a mistake over the years by apologizing for the opportunities by saying, “Look, it’s better than you think,” or “It’s not as bad as you’ve been told.” We’ve assisted nearly 2,000 people through mikeroweWORKS. We’ve awarded close to $7 million in work ethic scholarships. Now it’s not just me anecdotally telling you about what I think might be a good idea for your kids. We can bring back people who we’ve assisted three, four years ago. When a millennial or a Gen Zer hears a 25-year-old, 26-year-old woman talk about making $160,000 a year welding, they sit up.
If you’re in high school now, you basically don’t work. Why did those jobs disappear?
Part of the answer has to do with the idea that we think the lower rungs on the ladder are somehow less important. Part of it has to do with the conversation we’ve heard around the minimum wage. So many arguments attempt to take an entry-level job that was never designed to generate enough income to support you and belittle that opportunity because it’s not a higher rung. We entered into this space where we wanted all the rungs on the ladder to be absolutely equal. We began to look for scapegoats, and we began to look for explanations as to how these lower rungs were somehow marginalized. There’s a chronology to climbing a ladder. There’s a chronology to living your life.
A lot of people coming right out of college don’t want to waste their time on the lower rungs. There’s an impatience with it, and that’s really a shame because the things you can learn on the lower rungs are manifold.
I co-authored a story at Reason about millennials in 2014. I remember writing about how they were going to be the first generation to really deliver on the American dream. My parents were raised in immigrant ghettos and then went through the Depression and World War II. They did not expect their jobs to be fulfilling.
My siblings and I had many more options at our jobs. My kids’ generation believes that their jobs are going to really express who they are and what they care about fundamentally. In the time since that article came out, I’ve talked to a lot of millennials and Gen Zers who tend to be very sour and bitter. They feel like they’ve been lied to and cheated. I realize now it was a big miscalculation to expect young people to know what they wanted to do, and then also be able to do it.
Sometimes you make little rocks out of big rocks. Sometimes your day might’ve felt like drudgery. You’ve probably written some articles that you actually didn’t give a damn about, but you made your deadline and were able to take some satisfaction from doing that. I’ve hired a few [Gen Zers]. They come in knowing that mikeroweWORKS is trying to close the skills gap. Six months later they’ll come into the office and they’ll say, “So look, I’ve been reading some articles and the skills gap’s not closed yet. What’s the holdup?” It’s easy to poke fun at that, but I try not to because who gave them that expectation?
If these are snowflakes, where are the clouds from which they fell? That would be us. We’re not born eager to get up early, stay late, volunteer for the crappy jobs. Nick Eberstadt wrote a great book back in 2016 called Men Without Work, and he republished it after the lockdowns because it just became super relevant. According to him, 7.2 million able-bodied men in prime working age are sitting out the work force—not just not working, but affirmatively not looking for work. That’s new. That’s never happened in peacetime.
What do you think goes into that?
It’s an artifact of comfort for sure. I don’t know if it’s an artifact of wealth. If we succeed in making work the enemy, as a society—if we succeed in identifying the proximate cause of our misery as this antiquated routine of getting up and driving in and so forth and so on—then yeah, we’re going to look for any dodge we can find in order not to do that. You don’t have to be wealthy not to work. You just have to be able not to work in order not to work.
Part of that might be that families are letting kids stick around longer without leaving the nest. Some of it is surely transfer payments. [Former President] George W. Bush was assailed as a compassionate conservative; he expanded a variety of welfare benefits that never really got closed down. We as a society, both at a family level and at a governmental level, support more people not working than we used to.
We might be able to look at Eberstadt’s numbers and go, OK, what are these 7.2 million able-bodied men doing if they’re not affirmatively looking for work? Might they be doing something to contribute to society and ultimately to themselves as a result of this?
Unfortunately, they’re not doing that at all. What they’re doing is spending over 2,000 hours a year on their screens. They’re swiping left. They’re swiping right. They’re TikToking.
Look, that might be a little too disparaging. Maybe what they’re doing on their screens is taking deep dives into thoughtful conversations like this one, or free courses from MIT. I don’t know, but whatever they’re doing, it’s not public service. It’s not work as we understand it. It’s a new level of laziness.
Is there a move toward more vocational training? Fewer people are going to college. In 2019, 66 percent of high school graduates immediately went on to some form of higher ed. It is down, in 2021, to 62 percent.
When we started, I talked to some educators in Peoria, because Caterpillar was an early partner. CAT is a great case study for a company that is constantly trying to recruit for great jobs that people think aren’t great jobs. Part of the reason is because guidance counselors, the proposition to a kid is, “OK, four-year [college] over here, we’ve got opportunities over here. If you don’t do this, you know what you’re going to wind up doing? You’re going to wind up turning a wrench over at the CAT dealer down the road. You don’t want to do that, right?”
Well, guess what? The CAT dealer down the road turning the wrench
is killing it. He can basically set his own hours at this point. Show me a guidance counselor who’s doing it right, and I’ll show you one who’s getting it wrong. I don’t know what the research really says, honestly, but I can feel it tipping.
I don’t know how to react when you say that fewer people are going to college now, because my gut wants to high-five you. $1.7 trillion in student loans. A huge number of those people you referenced who go to college don’t finish, maybe half. Are they bundled into that number?
The first time we talked, you asked me a great question. You asked me to explain the fact that so many kids who graduated from college by and large were making a better living than those who didn’t go to college, who just had high school. Whatever answer I gave you, I thought about it later and I was like, “No, crap.”
The better answer is: Most of those charts—I’ve never seen one that has, as part of the rubric, a cohort of people who finished high school but went on to master a skill that was in demand. It could be an apprenticeship program. It could be a trade school. That cohort is never represented.
Education is not the enemy. The four-year school is not the enemy. We both benefited from a liberal arts degree.
Total cost of your education, if you had to back-of-the-envelope it?
I got financial aid, I worked, and I took out a few loans. But I came out with my Ph.D., including undergrad, maybe $10,000 in debt total at the time.
My entire thing—two years of community college, year off, back to school, got a B.S. in communications, and some other minors—was I think $12,900. Today, same school, same course load is $92,000. Good God! So, when you tell me fewer people are going to college, I’m glad. But I’m not glad because I’m anti-college, and I’m not glad because I’m anti-education.
I don’t think it’s fair to compare a liberal arts degree to a skilled trade. I just think the proposition is different. But it is fair to say that I can get the exact equivalent of a liberal arts degree if I’m curious, and I have an internet connection, and a smartphone. That wasn’t the case in 1984 for me. Access to information is different.
Going to college gave me an appreciation for the wider world. If I hadn’t gone to college, I might have ended up working near my hometown.
To me, that was what the transaction was about: You’re a curious person, and we’re going to satisfy your curiosity, and we’re going to encourage you to study all kinds of different things that you may or may not be interested in. And then when we’re done with you, you’ll get your paper, but you’re not going to be qualified to do anything. What you’re going to be is a better, well-rounded person, more so than you were when you went in. And then you’re going to get yourself hired somewhere, and you’re going to learn a practical skill.
Now, the pressure for a kid to declare a major, the pressure to declare and announce the road you’re going to go down, it’s very hard to get off of that road. So, if you choose poorly at 17 or 18, it’s a very pricey fever dream, and now you’re protecting your investment. It’s so hard for kids to go the other way now.
After we spoke in 2016, there was a presidential debate. Marco [Rubio]—I forget what the question was—but he said, “What this country needs are more welders and fewer philosophers.” Big applause line. Later that evening, thousands of people were saying, “Hey, Mike, this guy’s singing your song. This guy gets it.” And I thought, “Oh, crap. I’m doing something wrong.” Because that’s not at all what I mean.
What I responded to in the wake of that was, “Look, what our country needs are more welders who can talk intelligently about Descartes and Nietzsche. And what our country needs are more philosophers who can run an even bead.” It’s not this or that.
What I think is so great about the current moment is the proliferation of
choices individuals get to make about how to live their life, about where to live, about what work to do. It can be overwhelming.
I’m sure you remember the Robin Williams movie Moscow on the Hudson, where he plays a saxophone player from the Soviet Union who escapes and comes to New York and is gobsmacked when he is standing in a grocery aisle and sees all the types of toothpaste.
It happened too when Boris Yeltsin walked into that Randall’s supermarket in Texas [in 1989]. He was still very much the Soviets’ guy, and he was finishing his tour here. He saw the pudding pops and he wept for his people. He later wrote, “That’s when I knew we’re just dead men walking. We’re not going to win this, we can’t.”
I guess that’s why he started drinking so much. That’s a good way to segue into your whiskey line, Knobel.
Carl Knobel was a magician who lived next door to me where I grew up. He also happened to be my grandfather.
When I say magician, he didn’t pull rabbits out of hats. But he got up clean, wandered out into the world, came home dirty, and as a result something was fixed, something was better. He could take your watch apart and put it back together blindfolded. Same thing with a combine. He could
build a house without a blueprint—he was that guy. He only went to the seventh grade.
I was pretty sure I was going to follow in his footsteps because I wanted to. I really, really wanted to. But of course, the handy gene is recessive, as you certainly know. So I had to get a different toolbox. It was my pop who said: Do that. Get a different toolbox. You can be a tradesman; that’s a state of
mind. But find something—who cares if you’re passionate about it?—you’re good at, and figure out how to love it.
That was the best advice I ever got, and that got me in entertainment. The next thing I knew I was 42 and he was dying. My mother called me. I was working for CBS, and she said, “Your grandfather’s 90 years old, he’s not going to be around forever. Wouldn’t it be great if before he died, he could turn on the TV and see you doing something that looked like work?” And the next day I took a cameraman into the sewers of San Francisco, and that’s how Dirty Jobs started.
Five years later, mikeroweWORKS started when our economy went into a recession and Dirty Jobs was a giant hit and I wanted to do something with these good cards I got. The TV show and mikeroweWORKS were both dedicated to Carl Knobel. He only had girls; his name died with him.
And then the crazy thing happened. I want to talk to you about the notion of essential work, because when we locked down a couple years ago, that expression got dragged back into the headlines.
Dirty Jobs was the grandfather of essential working shows, and [there was a lot of] enthusiasm from fans saying, “bring the show back.” And the network was into it, and I was into it. So I started filming Dirty Jobs again during the lockdown to sort of commemorate the madness of that decision, both because I swore I was done in 2012, and because I [was] going out to film at the precise moment when we were at the sum of all fears.
I wanted to do a show about essential work when we were locked down, not because I thought that these jobs are more essential than your job or any other job, but because I realized in that moment that all work is essential. There is no such thing as a nonessential job because everybody’s essential to somebody. So I had a little peripeteia there in the midst of my quasi retirement, and I went back to work and thought, “What better way to celebrate all this than put my grandfather’s name on some really decent 5 year-old Tennessee whiskey?”
This interview has been condensed and edited for style and clarity. A video can be found here.