‘Dirty Jobs’ Host Mike Rowe: It’s Time to Rethink Society’s Definition of a ‘Good Job’
Mike Rowe has made a career by promoting the oft-overlooked jobs that keep society running via his hit TV series “Dirty Jobs.” But in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the low workforce participation rate has left many of those industries short-staffed.
“Right now, we have 7.2 million men, able-bodied men, in the prime of their working life, who are not only not working but affirmatively not looking. What they’re looking at are screens,” Mr. Rowe noted on the Nov. 23 episode of EpochTV’s “American Thought Leaders.”
“Something is afoot; something is amiss in the wide world of work,” he continued. “And as people grapple to define—or maybe redefine—what a good job is, a lot of businesses are just grasping at straws and clutching their pearls and very uncertain about what’s going to happen next vis-à-vis the workforce.”
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the national labor force participation rate dropped to 60.1 percent—its lowest level in 20 years—in April 2020. Since then, participation has yet to fully recover to its pre-pandemic level of 63.3 percent, with October’s rate of 62.7 percent marking a slight decrease from September.
With so many vital service industries struggling to stay afloat, Mr. Rowe said fixing the problem will likely require many to reevaluate their perceptions of the workforce and good old-fashioned work ethic.
“We have to rethink education,” he said. “We have to rethink the definition of a good job. We have to confront the stigmas and the stereotypes and the myths and misperceptions that are keeping people from pursuing these careers that don’t require a four-year degree. … We have to elevate the dignity of the job itself.”
Rethinking the Workforce
Mr. Rowe has learned many valuable lessons in the 20 years since “Dirty Jobs” first aired on the Discovery Channel. Chief among them was the fact that one does not need a college degree to be successful in life.
“We’re still stubbornly arguing for a four-year degree for everyone,” the TV host said. “We’re still warning parents that if your kid doesn’t go in this direction, they’re going to wind up turning a wrench with some sort of vocational consolation prize. … People don’t understand that you can make six figures welding with no college debt within a couple of years of getting your certification.”
Meanwhile, he noted that many who do choose the college route are often left feeling disaffected when they realize that higher education does not guarantee a successful or fulfilling career.
“We’ve lost our patience with the lower rungs on the ladder, which, well, a ladder without lower rungs is not a thing you can climb, you know. … Maybe it’s social media, maybe it’s the rise of the influencer, maybe we’re just surrounded by so many examples of instant gratification that we’ve forgotten about the virtue of delaying such things.”
But the push to encourage all students to attend college, he stressed, has come at the expense of other vocations, presenting them as “cautionary tales” rather than alternative routes to success. It’s also resulted in the widening of the “skills gap” to where most of the population is entirely reliant upon trade workers to provide the services and products they need.
And that growing lack of self-reliance, he added, is reflected in the larger problem of the United States’ dependence on other countries as well.
From energy and critical minerals to food and drug, the people of the United States rely on other countries for a range of necessities. But that reliance, Mr. Rowe said, has put the nation in a risky position given that one of the nations the United States depends on is also one of its biggest adversaries.
“We know, in our gut, that it doesn’t make sense to depend on China so completely for our medical supplies,” he said. “All I can think of is the frog in the boiling water. You know, it wasn’t so bad when we hopped in. But the temperature went up a little bit more and a little bit more, and now we really have forgotten, it seems, how to make a great many things.”
However, that dependence, Mr. Rowe stressed, has been of Americans’ own choosing. Recalling one experience he had working with a major jeans brand, he said the company’s research had shown that consumers would not pay more than one cent more for jeans made in the United States if they could buy the foreign-sourced equivalent for cheaper.
That attitude mirrors consumers’ willingness to depend on others to perform those “dirty” jobs they don’t want to do themselves. And it’s an attitude Mr. Rowe is hoping to change.
Through his Mike Rowe Works Foundation, he’s awarded nearly 2,000 students with close to $8 million in work ethic scholarships for training in various trade skills. Ultimately, he said he hopes his foundation will allow him to continue sharing the stories of trade workers and dispel the misconceptions and stigmas surrounding their work.
“I know lots of proud people doing lots of jobs that don’t seem to have a lot of outward dignity. And vice versa, I know people who are bitter and broken and feel sort of empty, and they’re movie stars. So success, it doesn’t look like this thing we’ve been led to believe. It looks like something else, and one version of that is a skilled trade.”