Dirty Job’s Mike Rowe at Skills USA
TOM: Making good homes better, welcome back to The Money Pit Home Improvement Radio Show. We are broadcasting from the 47th Annual SkillsUSA National Leadership and Skills Conference in Kansas City, Missouri. Seeing a real showcase here of career and technical-education students, who are learning trades that will sustain them for life.
Joining us now is a guy who is living proof that hard work and fun can mutually co-exist: Mike Rowe, host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel.
MIKE: Thank you, Tom. I prefer to say fun and hard work; priorities are key, you know.
TOM: Yeah, yeah, you’ve got to get the priorities right.
Well, I’ve got to tell you, I’m sure our listeners get a kick out of your endeavors every week as you take on a different dirty job. Can you just give us maybe a few of your favorites over the past few years?
MIKE: Well, on Dirty Jobs, we don’t really use words like “favorites” anymore. On my show, good is bad, bad is good, gross is clean, clean is irrelevant. We’ve had 300 of these things and in the end, when I look back at my cluttered, filthy résumé, it’s really not the dirt or the jobs that stick out, it’s the people I’ve met along the way.
At base, Dirty Jobs is really a talk show; it just takes place from time to time in a sewer, at the top of a bridge, in a garbage dump, on a construction site. Pretty much, it takes place in the world we live in and the stars are anonymous people who many times live in towns you couldn’t find on a map, who you would otherwise never meet.
TOM: You work in the best studio there is: the studio of life.
MIKE: I do. Very lucky.
TOM: Now, you’ve become a leading advocate for vocational education and out of that, you began the mikeroweWORKS Foundation. Can you talk to us about that?
MIKE: Yeah. Again, like so many things you wind up being proud of, you can’t really take any credit for it because if you’re honest with yourself and you look back, it was really more serendipity than a strategy well-played, at least for me. Dirty Jobs was doing really well in 2005, 6 and 7 and on Labor Day of 2008, I put something into play that had been on my mind for a while.
And doing the show, I get to talk to lots and lots of different people. We’ve been to every state, worked in every industry. And I started to hear over and over the same kinds of challenges that were facing many of the industries that we featured on the show. And near the top of the list was this skills gap. Even as unemployment was rising, there were more and more vacancies being created that really nobody was talking about: manufacturing trades, utilities, transportation. Skilled labor was actually suffering from a shortage, even as regular unemployment was spiking. And that just was, to me, one of the most bizarre statistics to try and get your head around.
And to make a long story short, I just thought it would be fun to give something back to those industries, by building online a trade resource center: a place where kids and parents could go to at least start an investigation and maybe a conversation about what the definition of a good job was in 2008 and create in that resource center opportunities or links, I should say, to apprenticeships and scholarships and community colleges and in general, just try and spread a little love back into the trades.
And it was really a very modest undertaking but the fans of Dirty Jobs stepped up in a huge way: they submitted tens of thousands of links, state by state. I organized them as best I could, put a name on it and just started talking about the trades. And because Dirty Jobs continued to do well, there was always a reporter with a question, a microphone, a TV camera. So I was able to promote the show and talk about what I thought was kind of a grown-up and important issue that affects everybody all at the same time.
TOM: Well, I can’t agree with you more, Mike. Before I got behind this mic, I was actually formally trained as a shop teacher and then spent about 20 years as a home inspector. And I’ve got to tell you, from that perch, we are putting homes together much the same way as we have for the last 200 years. The difference is, as you point out, that there are a lot fewer qualified folks out there to take care of them.
I mean shop classes have all been phased out and except for the vocational/technical courses that these kids are taking, we would be graduating millions of future homeowners who literally don’t know which end of the hammer to hold.
MIKE: Isn’t it crazy how much press we’ve read about the cutbacks in the arts? And by the way, that’s how I grew up. I grew up around the theater, singing; the arts are very important to me. But the vocational arts were cut at probably a rate double or triple that and you just never see that in the headlines.
MIKE: So, yeah, you hate to see a music class cut; believe me, it kills me. But you don’t even hear about the wood shop or the metal shop or the auto shop or all those other things that have come to feel like vocational consolation prizes for kids who can’t swing a college degree.
TOM: Yeah, mm-hmm.
MIKE: We’ve really wired ourselves, to a certain degree, for failure.
TOM: Yeah, you’re absolutely right.
Now, there are over 5,500 kids here competing in the National Skills and Leadership Conference this week. And your foundation has actually taken a very active role in making that possible. Let’s talk about the Foundation Competitor Scholarship that the mikeroweWORKS Foundation has created for these SkillsUSA members.
MIKE: We try and do something every year. It’s not like the Bill Gates Foundation; we’re modest.
MIKE: But we try and sprinkle the money around in areas that actually have an impact on a micro-level. And by that, I mean m-i-c-r-o, which was originally how I wanted to label the foundation but I don’t think Bill Gates would have approved.
But some years, we’ll give away tool stipends, so graduates of trade schools who really did well can have some money on hand to purchase their first set of tools. As you know, those things are expensive.
MIKE: This year, there was just a – it came to my attention that a lot of the kids who were there – everybody’s got to get themselves there. And there were some real hardship cases where really talented kids who had great projects underway were just faced with kind of a crushing travel bill.
MIKE: In many cases, kids coming out of the Southeast. So this year, we just wanted to do something to help get some of those kids there, on us. And again, it’s not the breadth of the gesture. I hope it’s just a – it gives me something to talk about and say – look, if you can have a conversation about a kid who’s passionate enough to come across the country to work on these kinds of projects, you don’t want to do anything to smother or diminish that passion. In fact, you want to do the exact opposite and do whatever you can to make sure they get there.
So, that’s what we did this year. Next year, maybe we’ll do it again. Maybe we’ll do it a little bigger. I hope so.
TOM: We’re talking to Mike Rowe, from Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs, about the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and the great Competitors Scholarship that he put together to get kids right here into Kansas City, Missouri.
And Mike, not only is this money going to help these kids get here but these kids are actually going to help the economy moving forward. We’re so focused on the economy right now and I think when these kids get out there and graduate and get to work, that’s got to help us, too, don’t you think?
MIKE: Well, it’s such a huge point, Tom, and it’s something people miss all the time. You actually alluded to it in your intro when you said that these are professions and careers that can stick with you for the rest of your life and really serve you well. And while that’s completely true, in terms of the opportunity of learning a skill or mastering a trade, the real impact is the effect that those kids have on all of us.
And that’s – it’s kind of nuanced and it takes a minute or so to really articulate. But my position is hopefully never confused with that of a spokesman for the working guy. I’m a fan of the people who do this kind of work and I think the vast majority of people in this country are, as well, whether they realize it or not.
The point is I’m addicted to paved roads and heating and air conditioning, chewing and swallowing, indoor plumbing. I’m not an expert in making any of those things happen but fundamentally, the reason SkillsUSA is so important is that it sends a message to the whole country that says, “Look, time out, everybody. We all benefit from the kind of work that’s being done here.” And if you really want to understand the skills gap, I don’t think it’s much more complicated than looking at it and saying, “You know what? This is just a reflection of what we value today or maybe more to the point, what we don’t.”
TOM: Great point. Mike Rowe, thank you so much for spending some time with us here in Kansas City, Missouri.
If you’d like to learn more about the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, you can visit them online at mikeroweWORKS.com. Also, catch Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe on the Discovery Channel.
MIKE: Tom, I can’t believe we talked for 10 minutes and I didn’t make one poop joke. Maybe next time.