Experts testifying before Congress don’t typically start by describing the insights they’ve gained from a backed-up toilet. But when Reality TV star Mike Rowe appeared before the Senate committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in 2011, he detailed two incidents involving malfunctioning commodes. When he was 12, he saw everything that went down the toilet reappear “in a rather violent and spectacular fashion,” Rowe recalled. His grandfather—Rowe describes him as a blue-collar magician who “woke up clean and came home dirty most of his life”—quickly ascertained the problem. What followed was an entire day of digging in the front yard, followed by welding, pipe fitting, and other hard work that Rowe participated in until the toilet was behaving again.
By contrast, Rowe told the senators, when his own toilet blew up three decades later in San Francisco, he called Roto-Rooter, left a check, and never saw the guy who fixed the problem. “It occurred to me that somewhere during those last 30 years, I had become disconnected from a number of things that used to fascinate me,” Rowe said. “I no longer thought about the person who was growing my food, or the person who was making my clothes, or the person who was making my car.”
Rowe created the TV series Dirty Jobs partly as a tribute to his grandfather, and he spent eight years traveling the country for the hit show, looking for, and profiling, experts who do hands-on things like make charcoal, paint bridges, sterilize dirt, and fix wastewater pumps. He gained respect for the competence of these tradesmen, but he also began to see lots of Help Wanted signs on the job sites that he visited and heard steady complaints from employers about how tough it was to find trained help. When the economy cratered in 2008, the press overflowed with stories about the newly unemployed, hungry for work; Rowe started getting the word out about those unfilled, well-paying trade jobs. What he soon discovered, though, was that not all people in contemporary America were willing to get their hands dirty—even when they desperately needed work.
That attitude represents a profound cultural shift. “Remember Rosie the Riveter?” Rowe asks in his book Profoundly Disconnected, evoking the fictional World War II figure who symbolized women working in factories to support the nation’s war effort. “When it comes to work we used to have American Icons. Now we have American Idols. Is it any wonder no one wants to pick up a wrench?”
What we call the skills gap—the millions of decent-paying, blue-collar positions in America that go unfilled, even as critics decry the lack of good jobs—has widened as the economy has rebounded and the job market tightened. To close the gap, many are urging renewed commitment to vocational education and technical training, both devalued by the educational system over the last 50 years. But merely ramping up apprentice programs or buying new equipment for shop class won’t be enough. The real challenge is cultural: changing the conversation about the importance and dignity of blue-collar work, not only with kids but also with parents and educators, who’ve latched on to the idea that college is the only route to success and that “working smart,” to quote an old, misguided poster that Rowe often cites, is somehow better than working hard.
The challenge includes not just promoting careers in the trades but also teaching those seeking a vocation that traditional values like showing up on time, working diligently, and seizing opportunities when they arise are crucial. “The workforce crisis is a character crisis,” says Danny Goldberg, head of a Milwaukee program, Building2Learn, which brings together students from urban neighborhoods with trade and technical workers, showing the youngsters what it takes to succeed. “Just teaching kids skills doesn’t produce the employees we need.”
Though changing the conversation is a tall order, having a blunt-talking celebrity as spokesman certainly helps. “We’ve declared war on work as a society,” Rowe told a group of coastal elites at a TED talk. “Somebody needs to be out there talking about the forgotten benefits of hard work.”
What was known as the work ethic, with a strongly physical component, once permeated American society, including the educational system. Early American promoters of public school emphasized the role that education could play in molding students into productive, hard-laboring adult citizens, and nineteenth-century schoolbooks embodied that spirit. McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader, among the most popular early textbooks, featured Eliza Cook’s poem “Work,” which advised young people to “Look labor boldly in the face/ Take up the hammer or the spade/ And blush not for your humble place.” McGuffey’s Sixth Eclectic Reader contained Horace Greeley’s essay “Labor,” which observed that all the natural calamities that befall us are nothing compared with the woes society suffers “through human idleness and inefficiency, mainly caused (or excused) by lack of industrial training.”
This thinking also suffused the American high school movement, which emerged in the early twentieth century as people began to migrate in large numbers from farms into the cities. The promoters of high school education saw it as a way to prepare students for the challenges of an industrial age, with manufacturers like Deere Tractor and National Cash Register starting to ask for better-educated workers. “In the factory, we like the boys to have a high school education if possible,” one industrialist said at the time. (See “When High Schools Shaped America’s Destiny,” The Shape of Work to Come, 2017.)
By the 1950s, though, American schools had begun to shift their emphasis to getting students ready for college. Trade work became a second-best option in the eyes of parents, teachers, and guidance counselors, a path for kids who couldn’t cut it in college-preparation courses. Over time, that perspective hardened into the “college for all” ideal. Many school officials and parents came to view physical work with outright abhorrence—as “jobs from hell.” During his presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders even promoted his free college-for-all plan by tweeting: “At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail”—as if those were young people’s only alternatives.
Rowe derided Sanders as one of the “knuckleheads” perpetuating the college-for-all fallacy. He noted that he ran into the bias himself as a high school senior, when he balked at applying to a four-year college—he wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life—and a guidance counselor pointed to an office poster of a graduate in cap and gown standing next to a worker with a wrench, and asked him portentously: “Which of those guys do you want to be?” The implication was that the right choice didn’t involve wrenches.
The consequences of this cultural transformation have been profound, and far from good for all. A growing number of college graduates leave school buried in debt and struggling to find work in their field. A 2016 survey by Pascale found that 43 percent of students with a bachelor’s degree consider themselves underemployed, as did 39 percent of master’s degree students. Many students don’t finish their degrees. About half of adults with only a high school diploma say that they’re underemployed. Millions of prime-working-age adults have dropped out of the workforce. Even with today’s low unemployment, about 15 percent of males between the ages of 25 and 52 aren’t working, compared with just 5 percent in 1967.
One common explanation of the underemployment crisis is that not enough “good” jobs are available to motivate people to return to the workforce. Yet more than a half-million jobs currently go unfilled in construction and manufacturing alone, where even younger workers can earn $50,000 a year. Social problems have clearly played a role in firms’ hiring woes. A recent study by Princeton economist Alan Krueger suggests that as much as 20 percent of the decline in male workforce participation since 1990 might be attributable to the opioid epidemic. Too many workers drop out of the labor market, addicted, while others can’t pass drug tests to land jobs where worksite safety is a major concern. “At least 25 percent (of job applicants) fail the drug test,” the owner of a Youngstown, Ohio, tank and boiler manufacturer told Reuters last year.
Rowe saw firsthand the opportunities being lost after creating a feature on blue-collar jobs called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” for a local San Francisco TV show in 2001. One segment, profiling a guy who inspected and made repairs in the city’s sewer system, won an Emmy, leading Rowe to propose the idea to the Discovery Channel as a regular series: Dirty Jobs. Network executives let him make a few trial episodes but were reluctant to green-light the show. They changed their minds when the trial episodes generated surprisingly enthusiastic viewer response. “Everyone agreed that Dirty Jobs was totally ‘off-brand’ and completely inappropriate for Discovery,” Rowe explains. “Everyone but the viewers. The ratings were just too big to ignore.”
For Rowe, Dirty Jobs succeeded because it was authentic. “It spoke directly and candidly to a big chunk of the country that networks had been completely ignoring,” he says. Along the way, Rowe met and filmed a constellation of skilled workers, many of whom he describes as “entrepreneurs and innovators.” Some were even rich. “People are always surprised to hear that because they no longer equate dirt with success,” observes Rowe. “But we should.”
Rowe’s advocacy grew out of his frustration about the skills gap during the last recession. He asked fans of Dirty Jobs to help him develop lists of apprenticeship programs and on-the-job training opportunities for fields that needed workers. Out of that effort arose the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which originated as a publicity campaign for good blue-collar jobs and now grants several hundred scholarships yearly to young people training for skilled trades. Rowe has partnered with like-minded groups and companies, from SkillsUSA, a national association of some 335,000 students preparing for life in trade and technical occupations, to Koch Industries, the industrial conglomerate that employs some 120,000 workers and has a big stake in bridging the skills gap.
One common theme among Rowe’s allies and other advocates is to go beyond offering technical training to include instruction in personal virtues. Skills USA, for example, delivers its technical education within a framework of integrity, respect, responsibility, citizenship, and service. “The hardest skills to teach these days are not the technical skills, but the skills that make workers employable, like getting to work on time,” says Tim Lawrence, executive director of the program, which has enlisted Rowe to encourage students.
Rowe has his own criteria for training, which he presents in his no-nonsense style. All students accepting scholarships must sign a SWEAT pledge (Skill & Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo). It includes such bracing statements as “I believe there is no such thing as a bad job,” “I believe that all jobs are opportunities,” and “I believe that I am the product of my choices—not my circumstances. I will never blame anyone for my shortcomings.” Students must promise to “deplore debt,” not follow their passion but bring it with them, and “show up early, stay late, and cheerfully volunteer for every crappy task there is.”
Anyone who thinks such a list isn’t countercultural in twenty-first-century America doesn’t recognize how much the country has changed. One mother e-mailed Rowe that, though her son wanted to be a welder and considered applying for a scholarship, she “was appalled . . . when he showed me your ‘sweat pledge’ and told me that signing it was required of all applicants!! Where did you come up with this nonsense? There are so many things wrong with this document I don’t know where to begin!! Suffice it to say, we will not be applying!!!” Rowe wrote back, “Over the years, it’s been my sad duty to inform lots of angry parents that this particular pile of free money might not be for them. . . . I wish your son every success, but have no interest in paying for his training if he doesn’t share my opinion about the nature of work ethic, a positive attitude, delayed gratification, and personal responsibility.”
Promoting such old-fashioned values got Rowe accused of writing a “conservative manifesto.” But he had no political intentions in establishing his pledge, he says, pointing out that “most of these statements are in line with classical liberal thought.” Even more revealing is that his insistence that kids work hard and tackle tough jobs has been labeled anti-worker and pro-employer. “It’s popular these days to see employers as the enemy,” he says. “I reject that out of hand, just as I reject the idea that the merits of an individual worker have anything to do with their race or gender.”
Parents can be a hurdle for promoters of blue-collar employment. Danny Goldberg’s Building2Learn—which got off the ground thanks to a grant from the Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation, a philanthropy rooted in industrial America—enlists young people with an aptitude for working with their hands and pairs them with successful tradesmen for training. Goldberg visits with the parents of each student recruit, looking to get them to buy fully into the effort. He hears doubts. “Typically, they say something to me like, ‘You’re not taking him out of math, are you?’ I tell them they’ll need math skills to work on our projects.” Students, he points out, get fulfillment out of the work they undertake—such as building sailboats—and the parents, by coming to see the results of the work, can show that they support the student’s interests. He’s skeptical that traditional public schools, run by educators who’ve long looked down on blue-collar careers, can reverse course. He looks to programs like his own as a more promising approach.
Some parents, influenced by media reports about blue-collar jobs shifting overseas, are surprised to learn that good manufacturing positions still exist in the U.S. and that firms are struggling to fill them. Once they hear about the pay, their interest perks up. Skilled factory jobs can start at $50,000 a year after a student serves an apprenticeship. And, unlike so many college graduates, the students usually emerge from apprenticeships debt-free. “We should be focusing more on the millions of good jobs that do exist that we can’t fill rather than the jobs we’ve lost,” says SkillsUSA’s Tim Lawrence.
The National Association of Manufacturers now runs an annual Manufacturing Day, during which firms around the country open their doors to the public trying to “inspire the next generation of skilled workers.” One feature of the event is “parent night,” resembling those held in traditional schools but with the shop floor, not the school auditorium, as the main venue. “Our message to parents was ‘there’s another option.’ You can’t have everybody be a lawyer,” a vice president of Woodward, Inc., in Fort Collins, Colorado, told the Wall Street Journal last year.
Some parents see the opportunities. John Goodson, who did an apprenticeship at a heavy-equipment dealership after attending career training on a mikeroweWorks Foundation scholarship, says that Rowe’s emphasis on old-fashioned values was music to his mother’s ears. She had given him the same advice: “Work hard. Be proactive. If your boss doesn’t have something for you to do, you find something to do.”
Companies with skilled blue-collar workforces have enthusiastically joined Rowe’s battle. After Rowe started his foundation in 2008, an executive at Caterpillar, the giant equipment company, called to tell him that workers and customers were reporting positively on his efforts. Caterpillar, which mostly employs skilled tradesmen, enlisted Rowe to star in a series of award-winning commercials highlighting the firm’s abundant job opportunities. In one, Rowe describes the “mystery” of then-rising unemployment and the simultaneously growing shortage of skilled laborers. “Make a case for the trades,” he says to a Caterpillar employee in the video, “because to me we’re not celebrating this kind of work.” The company helped Rowe launch a website promoting his scholarships.
Koch Industries, in turn, has sponsored sessions at the annual SkillsUSA national competition at which Rowe talks with students who’ve taken his SWEAT pledge. What especially appeals to the company is Rowe’s message about “the dignity of work,” says Meredith Olson, a spokesperson. As Charles Koch puts it in a recorded conversation with Rowe: “People who lead happy, fulfilling lives are ones that develop their abilities . . . and are rewarded for it and respected for it.” Koch Industries has its own worries about the future of the workforce. At any given time, it has thousands of jobs available, as much as 70 percent of them in good-paying skilled positions.
So pressing is the need that the company has extended its search for employees beyond the usual labor pools. One program, for example, focuses on hiring armed-services veterans, who know something about the work ethic. “Employers of military veterans, including Koch, have found that the traits which define the men and women who served our nation—character, dedication, perseverance and courage—match those of our most successful employees,” retired U.S. Army Colonel John Buckley, head of the company’s veterans’ outreach, wrote recently. “That is no coincidence.”
With unemployment now below 5 percent, employers find themselves casting an even wider net for workers. Ex-convicts remain a largely untapped source of labor, but since many grew up without working fathers as role models, they often have little grasp of what’s expected of them in the workplace—one reason that anti-recidivism initiatives that focus primarily on encouraging prisoners to complete high school and work toward a college degree while behind bars have such a low success rate. Project JumpStart, a Baltimore construction-trade training program for ex-offenders supported by Koch and Rowe, instead tries to inculcate in its participants the basics of comportment—showing up on time, being responsible for your work—as the first steps on a path to a construction career. After a decade in operation, Project JumpStart says that 80 percent of its graduates are still employed in the industry. It has assembled a stable of employers happy to hire its trainees because of program grads like Antoine Boykins, who tells Rowe during an interview: “A man afraid to work is a man afraid to live.” When he’s asked what his skill is, Boykins replies, “I work hard.”
Rowe calls Project JumpStart “proof positive that real opportunity exists for anyone willing to learn a skill that’s in demand.” That not a message you’re likely to hear on the nightly news, or even in policy discussions in many City Halls and State Capitols.
In our hyper-partisan moment, the notion of reinvigorating something as old-fashioned as the work ethic is controversial. Even promoting investment to create more blue-collar positions in America can arouse the furies. When Rowe narrated a 2014 Walmart television ad called “Work is a beautiful thing,” announcing the huge retailer’s plan to invest $250 billion over ten years in buying American-manufactured products, he got a lot of pushback. “What happened to your support of the underdogs?” one critic asked. Another warned, “Make sure you’re on the side of the WORKER, not the corporate greed side, OK, Mike?” Defiant, Rowe heralded the support of a huge company in what remains a struggle to change the way that people think. “I like this campaign because at its heart, it portrays hard work as something dignified and decent,” Rowe said. “Lots of people will criticize these spots as nothing but PR. But PR matters. A lot.”
Such efforts may seem insignificant against a backdrop of surveys showing that many young people, often encouraged by their parents and teachers, continue to look down on technical and trade work as “dirty jobs.” But Rowe and his allies can point to blue-collar work’s affordable training, abundant positions, and attractive wages. “Plumbers, pipe fitters, carpenters, mechanics, those men and women right now . . . can pretty much write their own ticket,” Rowe observed last year after a number of companies said they’d soon be bringing jobs back to the United States. “I see a lot of reasons to feel really optimistic.”
Rowe developed new respect for hardworking blue-collar occupations through his Discovery TV series. (DISCOVERY CHANNEL/PHOTOFEST)