Cleaning up 'Dirty Jobs'

@CNNMoney May 18, 2011: 2:21 PM ET
Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel's 'Dirty Jobs,' is on a mission to change America's perceptions of blue collar work.

Mike Rowe, host of Discovery Channel's 'Dirty Jobs,' is on a mission to change America's perceptions of blue collar work.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney) -- Since 2005, "Dirty Jobs" host Mike Rowe has shown Discovery Channel viewers some of the worst -- albeit essential -- jobs needed to keep America running.

Three years into the show, however, Rowe realized just getting dirty wasn't enough. So he launched a web site called "MikeRoweWorks" in the hopes that Americans would get over the apparent rift between white collar and blue collar workers.

"We are at war with work," he says on a video that is still visible on the site.

Rowe continues to lobby for skilled labor -- including testifying before a Senate committee last week. America needs to support skilled labor, Rowe says, first because America's infrastructure needs welders, pavers, electricians and the like. And second, because Rowe believes there are millions of 'shovel ready' jobs that could bolster the American economy.

Finally, Rowe supports this thing called the American Work Ethic. "Dirt," he tells CNN's Stephen Samaniego, "is not a demon."

CNN: What has hosting "Dirty Jobs" taught you about the state of the 'blue-collar economy?'

ROWE: We found humor where we expected to find drudgery, [and that] the perception of what work is today is so upside down. We have this idea that adversity and pain and misery live over here, in this set of jobs, and prosperity and wealth and success live over here in these kinds of jobs. And we've got this great rift in between blue and white collar.

CNN: What's really behind the rift?

ROWE: Well, if I had a theory, and I kinda do, I would just say that our society is waged to a sort of cold war on work. You know? Not a hot war -- nobody hates skilled tradesmen. Nobody's affirmatively against the farmer. But look at the way those industries are portrayed in pop culture. Show me a plumber, and I'll show you a 300-pound guy with a giant butt crack and a tool belt. He's a punch line.

CNN: Yet the American Dream has always been about wanting better for your kids -- and that usually meant going to college.

ROWE: Mathematically, that scenario just doesn't work. I mean, it works for a few generations, but in a society that's moving forward -- that's no longer driven by manufacturing, but by financial services and technology -- we're now defined by our ability to be efficient -- to work less. ... I just know that in the end, there's a list of jobs that are non-negotiable, absolutely essential. Who's keeping the lights on? Who's making indoor plumbing a reality? Who's keeping the roads smooth? Who's keeping the runways well-paved? Those jobs are no less important today than they were 50 years ago. They're just not celebrated in the same way. We've just shifted our focus a little bit and looked at a new type of career and said, 'Ok, that's aspirational. These other things -- let somebody else do it.'

CNN: How did you get interested in these dirty jobs initially?

ROWE: My mother's dad dropped out of the eighth grade to work. He had to. By the time he was 30, he was a master electrician, plumber, carpenter, mason, mechanic. That guy was, to me, a magician. Anything that was broken he could fix. Anybody anywhere in our community knew that if there was a problem, Carl was there to fix it. He was heroic, he was a legend, and he was that guy. Hard-wired from birth -- never read a direction or a blue print in his life. He just knew. So, I wanted to be him, and I didn't get the gene. "Dirty Jobs" is a tribute to guys like that."

CNN: You have "Dirty Jobs." Why start "MikeRoweWorks?"

ROWE: I wanted to have an opportunity to talk about the changing face of the modern day proletariat vis-à-vis the digital divide, or some crazy stuff. I just think it's interesting. I couldn't do it on "Dirty Jobs," so "MikeRoweWorks" was simply a conversation. I wanted the fans of the show to help me build a trade resource center that people could go to who wanted to genuinely explore a career in the trades. I wanted them to have a place where work wasn't the enemy.

CNN: Is work the enemy?

ROWE: This country's made dirt the enemy. Dirt used to be a badge of honor. Dirt used to look like work. But we've scrubbed the dirt off the face of work and consequently we've created this suspicion of anything that's too dirty. I mean, on a very simple level, think about the average kitchen today and how many disinfectants and how many cleaning things are out there -- it's endless.

And so, going back to my granddad, the perception is, the better you do, the cleaner you are. The cleaner you are, the better you've done. And so to your point before, we want what's better for our kids -- if that means cleaner, pretty soon we're gonna be so scrubbed and so sterile. How can you work in such a state of holy cleanliness?

CNN: Sounds like you're on a mission to change the perceptions of an awful lot of people.

American manufacturing jobs are back -

ROWE: If I say anything smart at all, I'd be thrilled if it led to more conversations with parents and kids who are simply looking at viable options. I wouldn't wish any specific thing for any specific person -- it's none of my business. But the idea that a four-year degree is the only path to worthwhile knowledge is insane. It's insane.

Fifty years ago, college needed a PR campaign and it got one -- it got a good one. But like so many of those attempts, in our effort to build up the value of a college education, we've very quietly marginalized all other forms of knowledge. That's just dumb. So, I'd be happy if people stepped back and looked at education and knowledge as the critical things that they are but weren't so pushed into that one well-worn path.

Apprenticeships, scholarships, fellowships, on the job training programs -- those things are out there, you know? And they're not vocational cancellation prizes -- they're genuine opportunities for people who might be pre-disposed, you know. What would my grandfather do today? Would he still have the same opportunities? You know, the Germans got it right a long time ago with the guilds -- guilds were aspirational. Every bit as aspirational as college. That's not the case here.

So, that's just a long way of saying that if "MikeRoweWorks" works, and a lot of other PR campaigns for hard work, then one of the symptoms will be a more open analysis of options for anybody who's trying to figure out what to do with the rest of their life.

CNN: How might a great appreciation of skilled labor help the American economy?

ROWE: There are 200,000 jobs right now in manufacturing that are vacant. There are 450,000 jobs in utilities, transportation and trades right now -- they can't fill them. You're talking about half a million well-paying jobs. At the same time, you've got 9% unemployment. Most people just can't get their heads around it, but that's the way it is. We have a skills gap. Closing the gap -- that's important, but not just for the people who could be hired or for the companies who are desperate to hire them. It's important for all of us because we all pay the price for bad roads.

CNN: Are retiring baby boomers must be contributing to skills gap as well?

ROWE: I work on this campaign called "Go Build Alabama." I've been their spokesman of sorts for the last year. In Alabama right now, a third of the skilled work force is north of 55. There's nobody there to replace them. [I know projects] that have been put on hold. Not because of lack of support. Not because of lack of money, but because of a lack of welders. ...When people start to realize the list of things that aren't happening because we don't have enough people who took the time to learn a skill and master a trade [that] is huge.

CNN: Do you subscribe to the theory that there are jobs Americans simply will not do?

ROWE: I do. ... We talk about dirty jobs, clean jobs, good jobs, bad jobs. American jobs. Somebody else's jobs. It all gets very political, very controversial. ...You've got a lot of very, very smart people standing by waiting for somebody else to do the work. Not a recipe for long-term solvency in my opinion. To top of page

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