Mike is the first U.S. celebrity to grace the cover of Mechanical Business.
As the host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Network and Discovery Canada, Mike Rowe is a perpetual apprentice, and has tried his hand at more than 300 careers. But he’s much more than an apprentice, he’s also one of the biggest cheerleaders the trades have, and he’s harnessing his energies to garner respect for the trades through the mikeroweWORKS Foundation.
By Adam Freill
Giving back and building up
The stars of Dirty Jobs come from all sectors of industry, but there are a number of common challenges among the companies profiled and apprenticed, including the ability to attract new people into the trades.
“I reached out to the fans of Dirty Jobs and said, ‘Why don’t we build a trades resource center?’ Let’s do something online that helps make a case for pursuing a career in the trades and offers something useful for parents and kids who want to sit down and have that conversation,” says Rowe. “That’s how mikeroweWORKS.com started, just as a trade resource center, where you could make a case – online – for the trades.” As luck might have it, Mike seemed to strike a chord once again, and a number of companies reached out to ask how they could help. “I started having some really grown-up conversations with CEOs of companies like Grainger , Ford and Caterpillar ,” he laughs.
Seeking fans, not advocates
In Mike’s part of the world, the going rate to hire a plumber is around $200 per hour, and he says that it can be hard to find one who has time even at that charge-out rate. That might be good for the tradesman, but the scarcity of professionals could be foreboding.
“In my world, the plumber is going to be just fine. The problem is people who are addicted to indoor toilets. Those people are going to have an issue when they need a plumber because he’s not going to be on standby. And if he is, he is going to cost more per hour than a psychiatrist,” he muses. “In a world where you can’t get a plumber, electrician or a good contractor to come to your home to help you do a thing for a reasonable amount of money, that’s the place we get to right before we flick the switch and the lights don’t go on.”
That’s what he finds most troubling, and was part of the motivation to help cast a positive spotlight on the value that the trades bring society as we know it.
“We are not properly gobsmacked by the miracle that happens when you flick the light and it actually comes on,” he says. “We’re going in the wrong direction as a society.”
But he doesn’t think that plumbers and electricians preaching to young people will do much to change how students feel about the trades, and to get them to consider trades training among their options as their high school careers transition to post-secondary training.
“Part of what I try to do, on mikeroweWORKS, person-to-person, or in front of a crowd, is to make the distinction between an advocate for the trades and what the trades really need. What they need, are fans,” he explains.
“By that, I mean they need people in the masses who are aware that their lives would be unrecognizable without tradesmen, and that the work the tradesmen do is beyond them. What we need to do is to challenge people who are not in the trades to feel differently when they flush the toilet and watch the crap go away.”
Up for the challenge, to a point
Mike’s latest outings landed him looking for interesting jobs to try in Australia. “I spent a month there, and Dirty Down Under will live up to its name,” he reports, laughingly adding, “Melbourne is my favorite place down there, but we didn’t go to any of my favorite places.”
His visit to Coober Pedy and the opal mines in the Northern Territory actually presented him with a task that was one of the rare times that he’s balked at a job.
To mine for the precious stones a drill bit about the size of a manhole cover is run straight down about 80 feet into the ground. If the operator hits sandstone and soapstone, which is where opals are typically found, then the operator goes down in the hole, lowered down on a bosun’s chair with the dirt on either side tight enough to touch both shoulders.
“It is a tight fit, and you are lowered all the way to the bottom,” says Rowe, who likens the experience of being at the bottom of the hole to what it might be like if one were stuck in a giant Coke bottle looking up, way up, to the small opening at the top of the bottle, hoping nobody puts the cap back on the bottle. “I have no problem with heights and I’m really not that claustrophobic, but I don’t want to be buried alive. There are limits.”