Mike Rowe has worked a lot of jobs. He’s torn movie tickets, faked his way into an opera company, and hocked wares on QVC in the middle of night. However, it was hosting the hit show “Dirty Jobs” on Discovery Channel where he found his current mission — change America’s perception of skilled trade jobs.
“I don’t want to focus on anything except the 5.6 million jobs that currently exist and the people who see them for what I believe they are, which are opportunities,” Rowe said.
These are jobs that are out there, if people are willing to put in the work, he told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson Show. But there is one challenge to this crusade — minimum wage. Rowe argues that people likely don’t realize the unintended consequences of changing the lower pay scale.
Mike Rowe vs. the war on work
Rowe points to the San Francisco movie theater where he first worked as an example. In the time since a young Mike Rowe worked the counter, that theater has replaced his job and three other entry-level roles with self-service or automated processes. He sees the elimination of those positions and the $15 per hour minimum wage offered by that theater as pure cause and effect.
“Our country has been, either consciously or unconsciously, waging a kind of cold war on work,” Rowe said. “Whether it’s trade schools or just a whole category of jobs that, for whatever reason, people aren’t excited about doing anymore. Important jobs.”
Through “Dirty Jobs,” Rowe brought a greater awareness for workers in some of these unheralded professions. He became painfully aware, however, that the influx of new blood into skilled trade positions was on the decline. His mission to reinvigorate those fields began in 2008.
“There is this huge category of jobs that are unloved and there’s a huge category of education,” Rowe said. “We call it alternative, but it could be apprenticeships, it could be trade schools, that all wind up feeling like vocational consolation prizes for a kid who’s 17 years old, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his or her life.”
Dirty jobs, filthy rich
“We did 300 jobs on that show and featured probably 40 multi-millionaires, and you never would have known it,” Rowe said.
Multi-millionaires because they were doing those skilled jobs, owning their own businesses because of it, and making a successful living without tremendous fanfare. It’s a career opportunity that people don’t often hear about. So, on Labor Day 2008, he launched mikeroweWORKS, a PR campaign designed to reinvigorate the skilled trades. Today, Rowe runs the mikeroweWORKS Foundation which awards scholarships to students pursuing a career in the skilled trades. For those who are willing to put in the work, Rowe isn’t looking for lofty dreams.
“My fund is really looking for people who are willing to show up early, stay late and not engage me with this conversation about what their dream job is,” Rowe said. “With respect, I don’t care.”
Solutions aren’t easy
Ultimately, Rowe believes that the more entry-level positions that are eliminated, the harder it will be to crack into the workforce.
“If you knock the bottom rungs off the ladder, for whatever reason, intentionally or not, you’re just going to make it hard for people to climb,” Rowe said. “I think that’s what’s happening around the minimum wage issue. I think it’s fraught with unintended consequences and I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”