Dear Governor Romney,
My name is Mike Rowe and I own a small company in California called mikeroweWORKS. Currently, mikeroweWORKS is trying to close the country’s skills gap by changing the way Americans feel about Work. (I know, right? Ambitious.) Anyway, this Labor Day is our 4th anniversary, and I’m commemorating the occasion with an open letter to you. If you read the whole thing, I’ll vote for you in November.
First things first. mikeroweWORKS grew out of a TV show called Dirty Jobs. If by some chance you are not glued to The Discovery Channel every Wednesday at 10pm, allow me to visually introduce myself. That’s me on the right, preparing to do something dirty.
When Dirty Jobs premiered back in 2003, critics called the show “a calamity of exploding toilets and misadventures in animal husbandry.” They weren’t exactly wrong. But mostly, Dirty Jobs was an unscripted celebration of hard work and skilled labor. It still is. Every week, we highlight regular people who do the kind of jobs most people go out of their way to avoid. My role on the show is that of a “perpetual apprentice.” In that capacity I have completed over three hundred different jobs, visited all fifty states, and worked in every major industry.
Though schizophrenic and void of any actual qualifications, my resume looks pretty impressive, and when our economy officially tanked in 2008, I was perfectly positioned to weigh in on a variety of serious topics. A reporter from The Wall Street Journal called to ask what I thought about the “counter-intuitive correlation between rising unemployment and the growing shortage of skilled labor.” CNBC wanted my take on outsourcing. Fox News wanted my opinions on manufacturing and infrastructure. And CNN wanted to chat about currency valuations, free trade, and just about every other work-related problem under the sun.
In each case, I shared my theory that most of these “problems” were in fact symptoms of something more fundamental – a change in the way Americans viewed hard work and skilled labor. That’s the essence of what I’ve heard from the hundreds of men and women I’ve worked with on Dirty Jobs. Pig farmers, electricians, plumbers, bridge painters, jam makers, blacksmiths, brewers, coal miners, carpenters, crab fisherman, oil drillers…they all tell me the same thing over and over, again and again – our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce. We are no longer impressed with cheap electricity, paved roads, and indoor plumbing. We take our infrastructure for granted, and the people who build it.
Today, we can see the consequences of this disconnect in any number of areas, but none is more obvious than the growing skills gap. Even as unemployment remains sky high, a whole category of vital occupations has fallen out of favor, and companies struggle to find workers with the necessary skills. The causes seem clear. We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education. Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed “alternative.” Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as “vocational consolation prizes,” and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to “create” over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing. (I always thought there was something ill-fated about the promise of three million “shovel ready jobs” made to a society that no longer encourages people to pick up a shovel.)
Which brings me to my purpose in writing. On Labor Day of 2008, the fans of Dirty Jobs helped me launch this website. mikeroweWORKS.com began as a Trade Resource Center designed to connect kids with careers in the skilled trades. It has since evolved into a non-profit foundation – a kind of PR Campaign for hard work and skilled labor.
Thanks to a number of strategic partnerships, I have been able to promote a dialogue around these issues with a bit more credibility than my previous resume allowed. I’ve spoken to Congress
(twice) about the need to confront the underlying stigmas and stereotypes that surround these kinds of jobs. Alabama and Georgia have both used mikeroweWORKS to launch their own statewide technical recruitment campaigns, and I’m proud to be the spokesman for both initiatives. I also work closely with Caterpillar, Ford, Kimberly-Clark, and Master Lock, as well as The Boy Scouts of America and The Future Farmers of America. To date, the mikeroweWORKS Foundation has raised over a million dollars for trade scholarships. It’s modest by many standards, but I think we’re making a difference.
Certainly, we need more jobs, and you were clear about that in Tampa. But the Skills Gap proves that we need something else too. We need people who see opportunity where opportunity exists. We need enthusiasm for careers that have been overlooked and underappreciated by society at large. We need to have a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce, and if I can be of help to you in that regard, I am at your service – assuming of course, you find yourself in a new address early next year.
To be clear, mikeroweWORKS has no political agenda. I am not an apologist for Organized Labor or for Management. mikeroweWORKS is concerned only with encouraging a larger appreciation for skilled labor, and supporting those kids who are willing to learn a skill.
Good luck in November. And thanks for your time.
PS. In the interest of full disclosure I should mention that I wrote a similar letter to President Obama
. Of course, that was four years ago, and since I never heard back, I believe proper etiquette allows me to extend the same offer to you now. I figure if I post it here, the odds are better that someone you know might send it along to your attention.
Admin note: to make this easier to find, here’s a reprint of the letter to President Obama:
30 January 2009
President Barack Obama
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue
“For everywhere we look, there is work to be done.”
Dear Mr. President,
Much of what you said on January 20th struck a chord, but nothing matched the simplicity or truth of that particular observation. I am awed by the task at hand, and compelled to tell you about mikeroweWORKS, a public awareness campaign designed to reinvigorate the trades, reinforce the importance of skilled labor, and draw attention to our crumbling infrastructure.
My name’s Mike Rowe, and I host a program on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs. Dirty Jobs is a simple show about hard work. No plot, no script, and no actors. The show relies upon a mission – one that sends me around the country to work as an apprentice in a wide variety of occupations not typically associated with a four-year diploma. From coal mines to cattle ranches, crab boats to construction sites, I’ve spent the last five years laboring alongside men and women who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us. Now, after 200 dirty jobs, I enjoy a national reputation as an expert in absolutely nothing. However, I have managed to succeed in highlighting an important group of hardworking Americans that I believe deserve our respect, and from whom I think
we might learn a thing or two about the meaning of a “good job.”
Forty years ago, people understood that sweat and dirt were the hallmarks of important work. Today, that understanding has faded. Somewhere in our economy’s massive transition from manufacturing to financial services, we have forsaken skilled labor, along with many aspects of our traditional work ethic. Trade school enrollments are down, even as our infrastructure crumbles around us. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Community Colleges are routinely described as alternatives to a “proper” education. Madison Avenue bombards us with messages that equate happiness with leisure. Hollywood portrayals of hard work usually embody an element of drudgery or some silly stereotype, and jobs once considered vital to our society are now simply overlooked. The ranks of welders, carpenters, pipe fitters, and plumbers have been declining for years, and now, we face the bizarre reality of rising unemployment, and a shortage of skilled labor. Strange days.
Whether through elitism or indifference, the net result is the same – people have slowly shied away from these jobs. Not because they aren’t important or lucrative – but because they are simply not celebrated. This perception is real Mr. President, and I believe it’s standing squarely in the way of your recovery plan, as well as your initiative for Volunteerism and national service. In my opinion, it needs to be corrected as soon as possible, which brings me back to my idea.
mikeroweWORKS.com is a destination for anyone looking to investigate a career in the Skilled Trades. Its purpose is to encourage, educate, and celebrate the business of Work, by focusing on those opportunities related to rebuilding our national infrastructure. The idea grew from the mission of Dirty Jobs, and evolved with the help of loyal viewers who constantly provide the site with daily links to scholarships, apprenticeships, fellowships, and other worthwhile programs. Large corporations have offered support. Industry leaders, Retired Generals, teachers, laborers, professors, parents, and students have all gotten involved. My hope for mikeroweWORKS is that it function not just as a useful resource, but also as a “call to arms,” and ultimately, a PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. I would like to see mikeroweWORKS help assure that those three or four million jobs you wish to create, are jobs that people feel proud to have.
People often tell me that Dirty Jobs reminds them of a time when Work was not seen as a thing to avoid. When skilled tradesmen were seen as role models, and a paycheck was not the only benefit of a job well done. We need to recapture that sentiment. We need to celebrate, on a bigger scale, the role models right in front of us. Dirty Jobs has given me the opportunity to do that. With a little luck and the right support, mikeroweWORKS, will take it to the next level.
Thank you for your time, Mr. President. Good luck in your term, and please know that mikeroweWORKS and Dirty Jobs are at your disposal.
CEO, mikeroweWORKS, inc.
Executive Producer, Dirty Jobs