Mike Rowe made a name for himself singing the praises of good, honest labor on the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.”
He traveled around the world getting dirty, stinky, cold, sore and tired with people who do the same for a living day after day: fishermen, pig farmers, heavy equipment operators — you name it — the dirtier the better.
His show has concluded, but his passion for blue collar labor lives on. He’s established a foundation, testified before Congress, and talked on talk shows about the good, honest work going to waste because there aren’t enough skilled laborers to fill the jobs.
It’s a story that isn’t told often enough, not in high schools anyway, where the conventional wisdom often is that you need a four-year academic degree to make a decent living.
Rowe tells the story of visiting his high school counselor, who had a poster in his office reading “Work Smart Not Hard,” showing a college graduate side-by-side with a dirty mechanic. The message was pretty clear, but Rowe wasn’t buying. He wasn’t interested in building up a lifetime of college debt and went the blue collar route instead.
“Consider the reality of today’s job market,” Rowe writes on his website, MikeRoweWORKS.com. “We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them. Meanwhile, unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Plus, they owe a trillion dollars in student loans.”
Rowe’s point is that college education isn’t for everyone, there’s no stigma to working at a job that leaves an ache in your muscles and dirt beneath your fingernails — and most of the training for those jobs isn’t available from an Ivy League university.
Community colleges, technical schools and apprenticeships are some of the pathways to this kind of employment. In many cases, these institutions are aimed at providing the most direct line from classroom to job.
While many heavy industry jobs have gone overseas in recent decades, this country still has plenty of need for blue collar workers, and many of those jobs pay a decent living wage.
Rowe points to the many unfilled jobs as heavy equipment technicians, some of which can earn as much as $100,000 a year.
Plumbers, rail workers, carpenters, factory and machinery operators, and more skilled trades are going begging in the marketplace because not enough skilled workers are available to fill the jobs.
President Obama’s administration has put a priority on infrastructure investment and job creation in the manufacturing sector — the section of the workforce that supported a healthy middle class for so many years in the United States.
That middle class has been waning since the 1980s, as manufacturers fled to third world countries. But as those countries develop and modernize, overseas labor costs are rising and some manufacturers are seeing the advantage to domestic manufacturing.
That’s good news for the American labor force and the middle class lifestyle.