"...We're lending money we don't have to kids who can't pay it back so they can pursue jobs that no longer exist..."
Published: April 30, 2015
By: Carol Brzozowski
Despite the drum-beating in high school over college preparations, not every student desires to go to college.
The United States has a “dysfunctional relationship” with work, says Mike Rowe, who has attained success and recognition in promoting work that doesn’t necessarily require a college degree.
“There’s a trillion dollars of student loans on the books, the lowest level of workforce participation in decades, and hundreds of thousands of skilled positions that no one seems to want,” he says. “And still we tell our kids that a four-year degree is their best hope of success? We’re lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back so they can pursue jobs that no longer exist. That’s dysfunctional.”
One of the biggest laments in many industries where jobs don’t necessarily require college degrees is finding people who want to do the work, and to do it well. Students whose hearts are set on the trades have a champion for the cause in Rowe.
After spending nearly a decade on the road where he took part in 300 various “dirty jobs” for his former television series of the same name, Rowe is tackling what is arguably the “dirtiest” task of all: changing the American perception toward the hard work of skilled labor.
His mikeroweWORKS Foundation, founded in 2008, is an intense campaign designed to reinvigorate the trades and bolster alternative education options.
Through his foundation, Rowe is raising money for scholarships for young men and women demonstrating an aptitude and interest in mastering a skilled trade. Qualified candidates are students partway through an accredited trade school or apprenticeship program and in need of financial assistance.
mikeroweWORKS has partnered with companies of all sizes, as well as the Boy Scouts of America (which honored him as a Distinguished Eagle Scout), Skills USA, and Future Farmers of America, in an effort to promote the trades.
This year, Rowe’s foundation will award $2 million in trade school scholarships based on work ethic. In his advocacy role for the trades, Rowe has testified before both houses of Congress. He speaks regularly about the widening skills gap, apprenticeship programs, and the dangers of college debt.
Rowe continues his work as a narrator, public speaker, writer and his television work. He recently launched a new program, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” which debuted this fall on CNN.
He meets with top-level officials of companies such as Bechtel, a construction company that has expressed an interest in supporting the foundation and with the Caterpillar company, which he says has been a “great partner around the whole area of tech recruitment.”
Rowe is profoundly connected to his cause: he is working on assembling an association of trade schools. He avails himself of any opportunity he can to raise money for his foundation, including selling on eBay items he’s accumulated while filming his ‘Dirty Jobs’ television program.
Although Rowe is one of the most visible advocates for skilled labor in the country, by his own admission, he wasn’t given the “handy” gene. His hit show, Dirty Jobs, changed his life, not only professionally, but personally.
“The thing I heard most often on Dirty Jobs was the challenge of finding people who were willing to learn a new skill, get their hands dirty, and work their butts off,” Rowe says. “The definition of a ‘good’ job has become very narrow and current expectations are completely out of whack with available opportunities.”
Rowe testified to Congress that the skills gap is “not a mystery, but a reflection of what we value.”
Rowe says he doesn’t believe he can ultimately change the negative mentality some people possess regarding hard labor.
“But I can make a case, and I can make some noise,” he points out. “I can shine a light on the opportunities that are available and introduce the country to people who have turned a useful skill into a great living. I can get others involved.”
And he can reward the kind of behavior he wants to encourage, he adds. “Scholarships based on things like academic achievement, athletic prowess, and musical talent are everywhere. So are need-based stipends,” he says. “I’m more interested in rewarding a specific kind of work ethic, and the willingness to learn a trade.”
For more information, visit profoundlydisconnected.com/foundation/.
Carol Brzozowski is a freelance writer.