Work smarter, not harder? Don’t tell Mike Rowe, who has met some of the hardest-working people in America. In fact, he argues that mantra is the opposite of the attitude we need to beat this lousy economy.
Here is what Mike has to say about the advice he received from his high school guidance counselor Mr. Dunbar:
“When I was 17 my high school guidance counselor tried to talk me into going on to earn a four-year degree. I had nothing against college, but the universities that Mr. Dunbar recommended were expensive, and I had no idea what I wanted to study. I thought a community college made more sense, but Mr. Dunbar said a two-year school was “beneath my potential.” He pointed to a poster hanging behind his desk: On one side of the poster was a beaten-down, depressed-looking blue-collar worker; on the other side was an optimistic college graduate with his eyes on the horizon. Underneath, the text read: Work Smart NOT Hard.
“Mike, look at these two guys,” Mr. Dunbar said. “Which one do you want to be?” I had to read the caption twice. Work Smart NOT Hard?
Back then universities were promoting themselves aggressively, and propaganda like this was all over the place. Did it work? Well, it worked for colleges, that’s for sure. Enrollments soared. But at the same time, trade schools faltered. Vocational classes began to vanish from high schools. Apprenticeship programs and community colleges became examples of “alternative education,” vocational consolation prizes for those who weren’t “college material.”
Today student loans eclipse $1 trillion. There’s high unemployment among recent college graduates, and most graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. And we have a skills gap. At last count, 3 million jobs are currently available that either no one can do, or no one seems to want. How crazy is that?
I think often about the people I met on Dirty Jobs. Most of them were tradesmen. Many were entrepreneurs and innovators. Some were millionaires. People are always surprised to hear that, because we no longer equate dirt with success. But we should.
I remember Bob Combs, a modest pig farmer who fabricated from scratch a massive contraption in his backyard that changed the face of modern recycling in Las Vegas by using the casino food-waste stream to feed his animals. He was offered $75 million for his operation and turned it down. He’s a tradesman.
Then there was Matt Freund, a dairy farmer in Connecticut who thought his cows’ manure might be more valuable than their milk, and who built an ingenious machine that makes biodegradable flowerpots out of cow crap. He now sells millions of CowPots all over the world. He’s a tradesman.
Mostly, I remember hundreds of men and women who loved their jobs and worked their butts off: welders, mechanics, electricians, plumbers. I’ve met them in every state, and seen firsthand a pride of workmanship that simply doesn’t exist in most “cleaner” industries. And I’ve wondered, why aren’t they on a poster? Why aren’t we encouraging the benefits of working smart AND hard?
The skills gap is bad news for the economy, but it also presents an opportunity. Last month I ran into a woman named MaryKaye Cashman, who runs a Caterpillar dealership in Las Vegas, and she told me they had more than 20 openings for heavy-equipment technicians. That’s kind of astonishing. A heavy-equipment technician with real-world experience can earn upward of six figures. And the training program is free! But still the positions go unfilled? In a state with 9.6 percent unemployment? What’s going on?
Here’s a theory: What if “Work Smart NOT Hard” is not just a platitude on a poster? What if it’s something we actually believe? I know it’s a cliché, but clichés are repeated every day by millions of people. Is it possible that a whole generation has taken the worst advice in the world?
Look again at the image on the poster above, which I reproduced just the way I remember it. Those stereotypes are still with us. We’re still lending billions of dollars we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back in order to educate them for jobs that no longer exist. We still have 3 million jobs we can’t fill. Maybe it’s the legacy of a society that would rather work smart than hard.
Last month I launched an online campaign called Lessons From the Dirt. It’s a modest attempt to get people talking about the skilled trades in a more balanced way. If you’re not opposed to a little tasteful vandalism, check out my updated version of Mr. Dunbar’s poster on lessonsfromthedirt.com. The image might amuse you, but the caption is no joke—Work Smart AND Hard.
I don’t know if changing one little word in one stupid slogan will reinvigorate the skilled trades. I just think it’s time for a new cliché. My own trade—such as it is—started with an “alternative education,” purchased for a reasonable price at a two-year school. I suspect a lot of others could benefit from a similar road. So get a poster and hang it high. And if you see Mr. Dunbar, tell him I turned out okay.”
This originally ran in the August 2013 issue of Popular Mechanics.
Click here to read it on their website.