Not long ago, I called a spur-of-the-moment press conference to announce the premature launch of my latest endeavor, a well-intentioned website called mikeroweWORKS. Sadly, the spontaneous nature of the conference resulted in a conspicuous lack of reporters, leaving me no choice but to interview myself. I found a quiet corner in a local bar on the San Francisco waterfront and I spoke candidly with me for several hours about my plans to change the way America looks at skilled labor. Though I had been up for two days straight, and drank steadily through most of our conversation, I found myself to be lucid, likeable, and surprisingly forthcoming, in spite of several questions that can only be described as “belligerent.” Here are some excerpts from my exclusive, one-on-one conversation, edited for space and content.
MR: First of all, thanks for your time. I know you’re horribly busy. And from the looks of you, highly contagious. Should I worry?
Mike Rowe: I’m not sure. My doctor said Poison-oak doesn’t spread from person to person, but the nurse at the clinic said it could. Regardless, it looks worse than it is.
MR: I would hope so. It looks…medieval. Where did you get it?
Mike Rowe: I was sealing an open mineshaft in Northern California, and had to crawl through yards of these waxy green leaves. Apparently, I’m allergic to the stuff.
MR: Well I have to say, you look hideous. Your right eye is completely swollen shut. Does it hurt?
Mike Rowe: Look, I’m trying to change the country’s attitude about work. Do we have to talk about my puffy face?
MR: Sorry. I was just making conversation.
Mike Rowe: Well, like you said, I’m very busy. And hideous to behold. Let’s move along.
MR: Fine. As the host of Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe, you’ve worked over 200 different jobs in just under three years. You’ve visited every state, and worked in every industry. Have you learned anything at all?
Mike Rowe: The short answer is yes, quite a bit. The long answer is a 350-page book I can’t seem to finish.
MR: What’s the holdup?
Mike Rowe: Well, I have a lot to say. And I’m not a very good writer.
MR: I see. Can you maybe break the whole thing down into one sentence?
Mike Rowe: Sure. Everything I thought I knew about work was wrong. Like most people in my business, I’ve spent a good chunk of my career looking for shortcuts and avoiding anything that looked too much like actual work. Dirty Jobs has changed that. The people I’ve met shooting this show have an attitude about hard work that reminds me of my grandfather’s. It’s opened my eyes to a lot of things.
MR: That was way more than one sentence.
Mike Rowe: I told you I have a lot to say.
MR: Please go on.
Mike Rowe: I’ve come to believe that we marginalize skilled labor. We make fun of it. We avoid it. And the consequences of doing so are not good.
MR: What consequences? What are you talking about?
Mike Rowe: Trade-school enrollments are down. Our infrastructure is crumbling around us. Yet somehow, we have a labor shortage, and high unemployment. These are just symptoms though. The problem is our relationship with work. In essence, I believe we’ve turned work into the enemy. The book deals with my own experiences in this area.
MR: Wow. Sounds like a real page-turner. Will you send me a copy?
Mike Rowe: You’re a bit of a smart-ass, aren’t you?
MR: Opinions vary. Tell me, how do we make work the enemy?
Mike Rowe: In every way possible. Let’s start with Hollywood, where the working guy is always the punch line. Art Carney was a crazy sewer worker. Sanford and Son were dysfunctional garbage men. Archie Bunker was a racist cab driver. The delivery guy on King of Queens was fat and lazy. My Name is Earl could just as well be called Morons in America. And when was the last time you saw a TV plumber without a beer belly and a giant butt crack?
MR: Well, as I recall, the plumber in Desperate Housewives was good-looking and kind of rugged.
Mike Rowe: Just for a few episodes. Then we learned his character isn’t really a plumber after all. He turned out to be an assassin or a spy or something cool, remember?
MR: Oh, yeah. Right. Never mind.
Mike Rowe: Hollywood loves to portray the working guy as a buffoon, while Madison Avenue reminds us every few seconds that our lives could be so much better if only we had more time off. If only we could get to the weekend faster or take a longer vacation or retire a little earlier. Then, Silicon Valley steps in with the hardware and software to make that possible, as Washington signs deals and treaties that send millions of manufacturing jobs overseas. The microchip has replaced the shovel. Rosie the Riveter is dead. Traditional notions of work and labor are under siege from every angle, and the definition of a “good job” has changed because of it.
MR: And you’re saying that’s why nobody wants to be a welder, or a plumber, or a garbage man? That’s why dams break and bridges fall down?
Mike Rowe: That’s my theory. We’ve sucked the nobility out of manual labor, and replaced it with drudgery. And that’s sent us down a bad road.
MR: Geez. I was told you were a fun, light-hearted guy.
Mike Rowe: Sorry. I’m a little tired. And my legs really itch. Now please, ask me about mikeroweWORKS.
MR: OK. Tell me about mikeroweWORKS.com.
Mike Rowe: mikeroweWORKS is my latest effort to call attention to these issues. It’s a website whose primary purpose is to celebrate all aspects of labor. Hard work needs a PR campaign; mikeroweWORKS is my attempt to launch one. Think “Rock the Vote,” only more like “Back to Work!”
MR: So what’s on the site right now?
Mike Rowe: Not much. There’s a long, rambling, self-absorbed video that lays out the problem as I see it. Kind of like a mission statement. I have a place for people to send comments and suggestions, because I want the site to reflect their ideas and needs. And most importantly, I have a place to register, so I can contact visitors when the site is officially up and running. Hopefully, by the first of the year.
MR: No offense, but it sounds like you’re making this up as you go.
Mike Rowe: Dirty Jobs didn’t work because I had a brilliant idea. It worked because I had an OK idea and turned it over to the viewers. They made the show what it is. If mikeroweWORKS, works, it’ll be because the users will have a hand in shaping its look and purpose. Who better to make the case for tradesman, than the tradesmen themselves? Who better to build a website, than the people who use it?
MR: Do you have any vision at all for what the website might become?
Mike Rowe: I’ve already received lots of great feedback, much of it from parents who want a place where they and their kids can investigate career options that aren’t necessarily college-dependent. Plumbers and electricians and all kinds of contractors say they that would like a place to chat, exchange stories, and pick each other’s brains. Job search engines. Worker profiles. And some sort of daily, work-related, entertainment component. There’s lots of work to do, but so far, I’m encouraged by all the support. Eventually, I see mikeroweWORKS as a robust place where people can gather to share, educate, and celebrate the business of working.
MR: Can I ask a serious question?
Mike Rowe: Sure.
MR: Are you out of your frickin’ mind?
Mike Rowe: How many sentences do I have to answer this one?
MR: Seriously. What are you thinking? You host a hit show. You’re broadcast in 173 countries. You’ve been nominated for an Emmy. You can do anything you want. Movies, talk shows, game shows, development deals, speaking, books. But you want to start a PR campaign for work? What the hell’s the matter with you?
Mike Rowe: I’d rather talk about my Poison-oak.
MR: No. Tell me why you’re doing this.
Mike Rowe: Look, I’m 46 years old. I’ve been in television for twenty-five years. I don’t want to host American Idol. I don’t want to interview celebrities, or replace Conan O’Brien, or make movies. Maybe I’ll change my mind one day, but right now, I’m the “guy who has had more jobs than anyone else.” I didn’t set out to be that guy, but that’s the way it turned out, and now, people are wondering what I’m going to do with it. For the moment, I have a small measure of influence, and I’d like to do something worthwhile.
MR: When did this happen? When did you decide to use your power for good instead of evil?
Mike Rowe: I was backstage at The Tonight Show, listening to Jay Leno talk about me. He called me “America’s Apprentice,” and said some very nice things about Dirty Jobs. Then, he introduced me as “working class hero, Mike Rowe.” As I walked over to his desk I thought, “Good Lord, if I’m a hero to the working class – if I’m the best they can do – then the working class is in some very deep shit.”
MR: So now what? You abandon your career to live up to Leno’s description of you?
Mike Rowe: Did you actually go to journalism school?
MR: I did.
Mike Rowe: Really? Did you graduate?
MR: My resume doesn’t matter. But yours does. You were an opera singer. A salesman. An actor. You even peddled worthless crap on QVC in the middle of the night.
Mike Rowe: I prefer the term “hawked.”
MR: Whatever. You can’t seem to hold a job. And now you’re suddenly the role model for the modern-day proletariat? Why should anyone give a shit about what you think?
Mike Rowe: Whoa, whoa, whoa…I don’t claim to speak for anyone but me, and I’m having a hard enough time doing that. I have not been appointed to talk on behalf of the working class. I have no expertise at all, and make no claim beyond my own recent experience. I’m just trying to do is use my notoriety to call attention to some problems that I believe are affecting us all.
MR: Like you did in your book? You know, the one you can’t seem to finish?
Mike Rowe: Damn, you’re just plain mean. Why do you hate me?
MR: Because people are sick of celebrities and their “causes.” I want to know your angle.
Mike Rowe: You’re not listening. Our infrastructure is collapsing around us. Bridges are falling down. People are dying. Tradesmen and skilled labor are evaporating in front of us. I’ve talked to a dozens of Presidents and CEOs from all kinds of Fortune 500 companies. These problems are real, they’re getting worse, and somebody needs to talk about them, you supercilious little prick.
MR: Easy there, big boy. I’m just messin’ with you. Put the bottle down.
Mike Rowe: Sorry. I told you, I’m tired and very itchy. And maybe a little sensitive.
MR: You know, social anthropologists get major grants all the time to study this topic, but no one has ever had the level of access you’ve had in the course of doing this show. Think about that. You could probably be taken more seriously if you dropped the “aw, shucks” attitude and took a real position.
Mike Rowe: This is my real position. I’m humbled by people I meet who have mastered a trade. And I’ve learned they have a pretty sophisticated bullshit meter. Believe me, they can see right through a fake. I get a lot of slack from the workers I meet on the show, because I don’t pretend to be something I’m not. I really try to do the job, and I don’t make fun of them. I don’t cheat. And the joke is always on me.
MR: I’m just saying, with 200 jobs under your belt, you could probably be a consultant or a lobbyist.
Mike Rowe: Is this a test?
Mike Rowe: Remember Hillary Clinton, drinking shots of rye with those steelworkers in Pennsylvania, trying to “connect” with the regular folk? She looked as foolish as she must have felt. I don’t want to pretend to know more than I do. I have an honest claim, an honest resume, and an honest message. That’s enough.
MR: Oh, God. You’re not running for office, are you?
Mike Rowe: Hell, no. I need viewers, not voters. But I realize this is a political issue. And if I get enough people to register here, who knows? Maybe we can get the candidates to focus on something besides their next attack ad. But don’t worry. I’m not running for anything.
MR: Have you thought about a non-profit?
Mike Rowe: It’s called The MRW Foundation, though I’m not exactly sure what I want to do with it. After I formed the foundation, I found some really great organizations that already exist. One in particular called “Helmets to Hardhats” I really like. I think for now, I’d like to simply call attention to those kinds of associations, and make a place on the site where people can peruse a variety organizations that help place kids in trade-related jobs.
MR: Are you going to ask me for money at some point?
Mike Rowe: Maybe. But if I do, it’ll be tax-deductible, and I hear you’re loaded.
MR: Don’t believe everything you read.
Mike Rowe: I won’t. Don’t believe everything I say.
MR: So that’s it? You’re just a down-to-earth guy with a cable TV show looking to change the way America feels about work?
Mike Rowe: That’s about it.
MR: No ulterior motive? No agenda?
Mike Rowe: Well, I’d think it would be really cool to not lose money on mikeroweWORKS. Who knows, maybe I’ll actually make a few bucks? And of course, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want more people to watch Dirty Jobs. I admit it. I think it’s one of the few shows on TV that portrays real, working people in a fair and respectful way.
MR: Maybe I’ll check it out. When is it on again?
Mike Rowe: Tuesdays at 9:00 p.m.
MR: Ummm… isn’t that when American Idol is on?
Mike Rowe: You know, I was just starting to like you.