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The Skills for a Dirty Job: An interview with Mike Rowe

Mike Rowe in a bright yellow shirt and a ball cap edited on top of a map of Wyoming.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Southeast Region and Canva
Edited by Jordan Uplinger/Wyoming Public Media

Mike Rowe, of Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” fame, stopped by Casper College recently. Rowe focuses on trade jobs like welding or electricians rather than the four year college path. Wyoming Public Radio’s Jordan Uplinger spoke with Rowe about his foundation, the state of jobs and the meaning of work.

This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity. 

Jordan Uplinger: So, not that you require any introduction, but can you go ahead and let the folks in Wyoming know who you are?

Mike Rowe: So my name is Mike Rowe, and I am the CEO of the mikerowWORKS Foundation, and a sort of TV host, I guess, and sometimes narrator, I suppose. And occasional spokesman, and from time to time a writer, and this sounds weird, but a recording artist, I guess?

JU: Oh, are you jumping into the music industry?

MR: I wouldn't say jumping. I've always been sort of around it. But I recorded a song a couple years ago, as a fundraiser for my foundation called "Santa’s Got A Dirty Job" with John Rich. It wound up going to number one. So I’ve been getting these crazy calls from all kinds of people in Nashville, and in the music business, asking if I'm going to do an album, which I have no plans to do. But hey, never say never.

JU: Well, I guess it just goes to your title as a jack of all trades.

MR: Well remember the totality of that, that phrase, jack of all trades, master of none. So yeah, paid to try. That's my thing.

JU: But going back to Wyoming, you were recently at Casper College, can you tell us what you were stopping by the cowboy state for?

MR: I was invited to talk about work. And it's something that I do a fair amount of these days. “Dirty Jobs” is still on the air and I think that's kind of burned me into the collective retina of our country. And the work I do with my foundation has given me a certain amount of permission to talk about things like the cost of college and the upside of pursuing a skilled trade. I get invited all over the place to talk about those things. And somebody from Wyoming reached out and how can I say no to Wyoming? It's one of my favorite places.

JU: Well, let's talk about that foundation a little more, you're on a mission to change the narrative around work. Can you tell us where this mission kind of started?

MR: Years ago, higher education needed better PR. We genuinely needed more people getting into the humanities and exploring careers in engineering and medicine, and so forth. And so we began to promote those careers, but like most PR, we went too far. And we didn't simply promote the benefits of a four year degree on its merits, we positioned all other forms of education as subordinate to the four year path. And at the same time, we took shop class out of high school. And I think the combination of those things sent a pretty clear message to a whole generation of kids. And that created a kind of disconnect, I think, and the results of that disconnect today are a few 100 million people who don't really understand where their energy comes from, or where their food comes from, or what it takes to build a home. So my foundation tries to challenge the lunacy of that kind of thinking.

JU: While we're talking about redefining narratives around work, let's talk about the nature of work. There's a discussion to be had about whether modern work is just a means to an end and people are paid correctly for their labor. Or if modern work is a way for people to find themselves and grow and develop their character. Do you lean in any one way or the other? Or maybe think it's a mixture of both?

MR: That's only the question of our times, right? You're asking not about job satisfaction, you're asking about life satisfaction. And there's not a playbook for that. And I'm not sure who's listening to this, but I hesitate to give specific advice because one person might need to hear something really, really, really different. Look, speaking only for myself, I didn't care at all about the meaning of the work I did. I took great pleasure in not caring about the quality of the infomercial. For the eight years I spent in the Baltimore Opera dressed up like a pirate or a Viking singing words in another language that I didn't even understand, I didn't try to extract any purpose or meaning except to have a good time and do the very best work I could in the scope of that job. That's how I thought and that's what I did for the first twenty years, but the last twenty years have been really different.

“Dirty Jobs” was a mistake. It was a happy accident. It was supposed to be a three pilot show that came and went, but it hit a chord. And I suddenly realized, 'Wow, this is new, this is different.' And I thought, 'This is a job I can take seriously. And this is a job, maybe, that will provide a level of meaning or significance that I hadn't had before.' And the good news is, I was right. The bad news is, it takes a hell of a toll. You know, I spent the next 10 years on the road, crawling through sewers, and artificially inseminating all creatures great and small, and on the receiving end of God knows how many exploding toilets. It was a fun show. It was a hard show. And it was an honest show. We never did a second take, right? We showed America what work looks like through the eyes of a middle aged apprentice.

JU: Moving from “Dirty Jobs” to just the state of jobs in this country, you often reference a book by Nicholas Eberstadt called "Men Without Work." In that book, he talks about how there are four million new jobs post-pandemic and four million fewer jobs post-pandemic as well. A lot of people have given you their solutions and theories as to why this is and how to solve it. But I’m curious if you think the constant obsession with getting new jobs out into the market maybe overlooks the quality or goodness of those jobs and if that's maybe something we can look at or review.

MR: There's always room for an argument about working conditions and job quality. And I'm all for people having that within the context of their work. But to me, speaking broadly, the conversation is about the existence of opportunity, period. So you know, when I quote Nick and his book, I do it mainly in the context of I think a lot of people came to the conclusion that opportunity was dead, and they just gave up. And a lot of those people, unfortunately, are men in their prime working years 25 to 54. And at the moment, the stat that Nick really got my attention with is 7.2 million able bodied men were not only not working, but aren't looking for work. They've just given up. And that's never happened before in this country, not in peacetime anyway, They're not only not working, they're not engaged in their community. They're not volunteering. That worries me. And the fact that there are nearly 11 million open positions right now, most of which don't require a four year degree, that worries me. That $1.7 trillion in student loans are on the books. But what scares me is this still steady drumbeat of people saying, 'Look, if you don't take that path, you're screwed.' I object to that and my foundation objects to that, because I think those perceptions are a result of a lot of a lot of broad brush painting. So we're here to confront some of those stereotypes good naturedly and debunk them if we can.

Jordan Uplinger was born in NJ but has traveled since 2013 for academic study and work in Oklahoma, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. He gained experience in a multitude of areas, including general aviation, video editing, and political science. In 2021, Jordan's travels brought him to find work with the Wyoming Conservation Corps as a member of Americorps. After a season with WCC, Jordan continued his Americorps service with the local non-profit, Feeding Laramie Valley. His deep interest in the national discourse on class, identity, American politics and the state of material conditions globally has led him to his current internship with Wyoming Public Radio and NPR.
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