P&S sat down with the TV show host to discuss learning trades and how companies can fill the skills gap, plus more.
by Drew Champlin
May 12, 2019

For more than a decade, American television host Mike Rowe has fought against the public narrative that earning a four-year college degree and working in the office was the only way to go. In 2008, the host of Discovery Channel hit series "Dirty Jobs" started the mikeroweWORKS Foundation to raise awareness for more skilled labor and money for trade school scholarships.

Rowe was the keynote speaker at the ABB Customer World event in Houston, Texas in March. He spoke with Pumps & Systems magazine one-on-one about the skills gap, skilled labor issues, misconceptions and more.

Mike Rowe and Drew ChamplinMike Rowe (left) and Drew Champlin at the ABB Customer World event

P&S: What got you interested in helping solve the skills gap?
Rowe: I guess the honest answer is that it started selfishly. "Dirty Jobs" was a big hit, and I was constantly out in the media talking about exploding toilets and misadventures and animal husbandry. People loved the show for that. I wanted to talk more broadly about some of the bigger themes in the show that propped it up and made it relevant in 2009. When the economy tanked suddenly in 2009, everyone was talking about the definition of a good job. I was weirdly in a place where I had something to say. I had seen a lot of work, so I looked at the most common complaint that I had heard from businesspeople, which was a recruiting challenge. I thought, "Why is it hard to recruit?" That question led to, "Whatever the answer is, let’s focus on the opportunities that exist." I started to, from a PR (public relations) standpoint, try to make a case for those jobs. That’s how it began. It was an opportunity for me to talk about "Dirty Jobs" in a broader way, but also a genuine attempt to help the industries that allowed my show to prosper to do a better job in recruiting.

P&S: What mindset should young workers have to gain the critical skills to become and remain successful?
Rowe: They should be, first of all, suspicious of the idea that the thing they think will make them happy, will make them happy. They should be willing not to just try something new or different or potentially unappealing, but they should look for things that are new, different or potentially unappealing and find out how to love them. Nobody ever got hurt by learning how to weld. Nobody ever got hurt by learning basic plumbing. It doesn’t mean you have to weld or be a plumber for the rest of your life, but until you try it or get a better sense of what the opportunity really entails, you’ll never know because society will never tell you because that’s not a narrative we push. I would simply say that the willingness to experiment and not get locked so firmly into a position and not to take on so much debt that you can’t change your direction later—just go gently into the employment market and don’t go underwater.

P&S: What are the biggest obstacles you see for younger workers as they enter the field?
Rowe: The pressure to borrow money is enormous. The pressure to go to a four-year school is enormous. Peer pressure is enormous. Pressure from guidance counselors is enormous. Pressure from parents is enormous. If you’re an 18-year-old kid trying to figure it out, you’re going to be surrounded by people telling you to do this or else, or be careful over here. You’re going to get a lot of different advice. There is a lot of advice to listen to and figure out. If I stayed the course personally, and stayed on the path I wanted to be on, I wouldn’t be here today. I’d be pushing a rock up the hill and I would be unhappy. Staying the course only makes sense if you’re going in the right direction. A lot of people tell kids today that you’ve got to be persistent and keep at it. I really don’t know. The best thing that ever happened to me is that I tried new things and that I kept trying new things for years.

P&S: What are older people overlooking as they seek out younger workers to bridge the skills gap?
Rowe: I think they’re overlooking the fact that young people today have a different set of expectations than they did 30 or 40 years ago. They also have a BS meter that’s way more tuned. Young people know when they are being marketed to, when they’re being advertised to and when they are being sold something. A lot of companies that I work with make the mistake of overselling the opportunities that they have. At the same time, they have to give an honest look and a persuasive look at what you can do. It’s a very, very tenuous thing. If you come at it too hard, you’ll scare them off. To make a persuasive case for opportunities in your industry, there’s only one thing to do: introduce to the country people who have prospered in your industry as a direct result of mastering a trade. You have to tell their stories. The company’s story isn’t interesting. The individual story almost always is.

P&S: What can companies do to attract and keep good workers?
Rowe: The obvious answer is that the workers need to feel like they are taken care of fairly. Because that’s uncontrollable, that’s kind of relative. What’s fair for me might be unfair for someone else. The most important thing they can do is let them move the needle in some way. Show them in some way what their task is actually leading to. Prove to them and remind them over and over that without you, we don’t have this, this, this and that. That’s another thing today that’s big with millennials that wasn’t that big when I was 20. I had people come work for me all the time that didn’t feel like they had changed enough when they had only been here six months. It’s to their credit that they want to have an impact. I think employers think too narrowly and say, "You just do this. This is your job." That’s not satisfying anymore. They have to understand that they have skin in the game and that they are making a difference.

P&S: How is the current political climate affecting today’s younger workers?
Rowe: The political climate is affecting everything. Everything has been reduced to a binary choice. With regard to recruitment, it just reinforces this idea that there is blue collar or white collar, good jobs or bad jobs. That’s all false. I think, really the future is a much different combination of skill and learning and knowledge and technology and wisdom and application. I don’t think it’s definable. But regarding politics, you’re either affirmatively in favor of championing alternative educations or you’re affirmatively in favor of accentuating four-year schools. In Maryland, I think there was a disgraceful ruling where they had it all lined up and it was ready to go through to the legislature. It was a bill that would have really freed up some resources for kids who weren’t cut out for four-year schools. It died. The Senate didn’t pass it, and it was purely political because you had a Republican governor who was behind it and you had the other side who simply didn’t want to give the Republican governor a win, so he didn’t get one. The people who pay the price are the country. It’s a shame.

P&S: What changes does America need to change the attitude that kids have to go to college to advance and have a good living?
Rowe: It’s perception. We have to do a better job of showing kids real world examples of people who prosper as a result of learning a trade. We also have to remind them that so much of the knowledge that was only available in college once upon a time is now available on your iPhone. You can watch lectures for free from any great university in the world. From Yale to Harvard to wherever. It’s not the same as going, but one costs $200,000 and one is free.

P&S: What gives you hope?
Rowe: The thing that gives me the most hope is that deep down, nobody really knows their ass from a hot rock. We don’t really know. That doesn’t frighten me. It actually gives me relief, because everybody today is filled with so much certainty. The robots are coming to take our jobs. You sure about that? I don’t think they are. There’s so much misplaced certainty that I actually take hope in the fact that 30 years ago, nobody could have imaged where we are sitting right now. A generation before that, there was no air travel. A hundred years ago, we were still going across the prairies. Whatever’s coming, we really don’t know what it is, and that gives me a weird level of hope.

Listen to the audio interview here