Reader Profile: Mike Rowe

April 1, 2014

One of the biggest laments in the US construction industry is finding people who want to do the work and do it well. Construction company owners, as well as those in other trades, now have a champion for the cause: Mike Rowe. After spending nearly a decade on the road, engaging in 300 “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 a full-blown public relations campaign designed to reinvigorate the trades and bolster alternative education options.

Through the 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 large and small, as well as the Boy Scouts of America (which has 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 dollars 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.

What He Does Day to Day
In addition to overseeing his foundation’s activities, Rowe continues his work as a narrator, public speaker, writer and starting production on his new show called “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” debuting this fall on CNN. “Like Dirty Jobs, no two days are the same, and none of them are average,” says Rowe. “A few weeks ago, for instance, I narrated an episode of Deadliest Catch. After that, I had a meeting with the CEO of Bechtel, who expressed an interest in supporting the Foundation, and another meeting with Caterpillar, who’s been a great partner around the whole area of tech recruitment [through another initiative in which Rowe is involved, Profoundly Disconnected]. Then I had a beer with a guy who is helping me assemble an association of trade schools with extraordinary placement results. Pretty cool! Then I shot an episode of C.R.A.P. Crap? That stands for Collectibles, Rare And Precious. “I’ve been auctioning off the crap in my garage I accumulated from Dirty Jobs on eBay,” Rowe explains. “It’s a fun way to raise money for the scholarship fund. And get free press. And clear out my garage.”

What Led Him to This Work
Although Rowe is the most visible advocate 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 show relied completely on companies and entrepreneurs who let me document the dirtiest aspects of their operation,” says Rowe. “That was risky. I thought it might be worthwhile-or at least polite-to give something back to the industries that allowed Dirty Jobs to succeed.”

What He Likes Best About His Job
“It’s better than fun,” Rowe says of his work. “It’s gratifying. Dirty Jobs was a tribute to my granddad, the greatest tradesman in the history of the world. mikeroweWORKS feels like a worthwhile legacy of the show. Eventually, I’m gonna need to get an actual job, but for now, this suits me just fine.”

His Greatest Challenge In starting mikeroweWORKS-the specifics of which can be viewed at took upon himself the challenge faced by those in the trades trying to build companies, serve clients’ needs, and contribute to the US economy: Hard work needs better PR. “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 has said the US has a “dysfunctional relationship” with work. “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. 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.” 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.”