Mike Rowe says he’ll never forget a certain poster that his high school guidance counselor showed him as he was trying to convince 18-year old Rowe to enroll in a four-year college. One side of the poster showed a smiling and optimistic man in a business suit, the other a downcast-looking man dressed in overalls and carrying a wrench. The poster was captioned “Work smart, not hard.”
“We’ve promoted one type of work at the expense of the other,” Rowe said during his opening keynote at the 2018 HR Technology Conference at Las Vegas’ Venetian Resort.
That attitude is partly responsible for the enormous skills gap that exists in the U.S., said Rowe, in which vital and necessary blue-collar work is considered inferior to jobs that require a four-year degree.
Rowe himself has become a celebrity thanks to his shows, most notably Dirty Jobs on the Discovery channel, that celebrate the men and women who hold unglamorous jobs. During his talk, Rowe recounted in hilarious detail the battles that took place between himself and the management team at Discovery, who wanted Dirty Jobs to focus on trendier topics such as artificial intelligence.
“I said to my longtime producer, ‘Hey, they want us to do a show on A.I.,'” Rowe said. “He replied, ‘Artificial insemination?’ ”
Rowe said the remark gave him an idea, and a week later he and his production team flew to Texas, where they filmed at a ranch that breeds Brangas beef cattle via A.I. — artificial insemination, that is. Rowe, who tries to perform the duties of each job he profiles as part of the show, found himself tasked with artificially inseminating 75 cows and “stimulating” one very large bull named Hunsucker Commando.
“He still calls me — ‘When you coming back to Texas, big fella?’ ” Rowe joked.
Management at Discovery was less than elated with the footage, Rowe said, but the episode ultimately aired and attracted record ratings. Discovery then decided that Rowe would film similar episodes at livestock operations and farms throughout the country — albeit with all footage of animal reproductive organs “heavily pixelated,” he said.
“Help Wanted” Signs Amid a Recession
Shortly after the last of the “A.I.” segments aired in late 2008, Rowe said, the economy crashed and the unemployment rate soared into the double digits. And yet, he said, even as the ranks of the jobless swelled, “Help Wanted” signs remained a common sight at the farms, factories and machine shops where he filmed the show, said Rowe.
“Maybe some of these opportunities have been ‘pixelated’ out of the public’s view,” he said. “We’ve been pixelating opportunity in this country.
“We keep sending kids off to four-year colleges to accrue lots of debt while studying for jobs they’ll never get,” Rowe continued. “Meanwhile, there are 6.6 million unfilled jobs in the U.S. that don’t require a college degree and, in many cases, pay north of 100 grand per year. And yet we’ve eliminated shop class from so many high schools.”
High-school students are being pressured to enroll in four-year colleges without understanding what they’re getting themselves into, he said. “When I was 18, I didn’t know my own ass from a hot rock,” Rowe remarked.
Recruiters and hiring managers try and minimize the risk that they’ll be blamed for a bad hire by requiring all candidates to have a college degree, Rowe said. “Then they can say ‘We checked all the boxes, it’s not our fault,’ ” he said. “I understand the rationale behind credentialing. But I think credentialing is hurting us and widening the skills gap.”
Who’s Really Responsible for “Snowflakes”?
Ten years ago Rowe started an organization, mikeroweWORKS foundation, that awards scholarships for students to pursue careers in the skilled trades. It’s part of an effort to reorient the nation toward a more-positive view of blue-collar jobs and address the skills gap, he said. “We want to prepare people for jobs that actually exist,” said Rowe.
Rowe noted that many of the people he’s profiled for Dirty Jobs are actually happier in their work than their desk-bound counterparts. “They enjoy their work and, at the end of the day, they’ve clearly accomplished a task, whereas your desk at the office typically looks the same at the end of the day as it did that morning,” he said.
The much-derided millennial generation has a legitimate beef, he said.
“We’ve laid out a roadmap that says the best path for most people is also the one that’s the most expensive,” said Rowe. “We like to complain about millennials, that they’re snowflakes with their safe spaces and ‘crying closets,’ and yet we ourselves are the clouds from which these ‘snowflakes’ have fallen.”