Mike Rowe: Helping America Get Back to Work Again

mike rowe
Mike Rowe | Credit: Michael Segal

Mike Rowe is one of the most interesting guys you’ll ever meet. Though he’s now famous for being a TV personality, his younger years were spent growing up in the woods outside of Baltimore. A life he describes as closer to “Huckleberry Finn” than that of any TV star. But those days are long gone. Now, with several years and several projects behind him in the entertainment world, Rowe is using his celebrity and blue-collar work ethic for other reasons.

Rowe is the iconic voice behind shows like The Ultimate Fighter, Deadliest Catch, and others, but is most well known for his TV work portraying some of the toughest jobs in America. On shows like Dirty Jobs and Somebody’s Gotta Do It, Rowe (and his crew) climbs through sewers, wrangles snakes, and even tests shark suits — all in the pursuit of bringing attention to America’s working class heroes. It’s pretty damn entertaining, too.

He’s also dedicated significant amounts of time and resources to helping Americans find their way into, or back into, the workforce. He runs a foundation dedicated to helping people find and train for jobs and is passionate about making sure people know there are plenty of good jobs out there — you just need to be willing to look.

And roll up your sleeves.

Mike Rowe, a primer

For those who are unfamiliar with Rowe, he is the former host of the extremely popular TV show Dirty Jobs, which aired on the Discovery Channel for many years. Currently, he hosts Somebody’s Gotta Do It, which airs on CNN. He has also worked with Ford, American Airlines, and QVC throughout his career — if you’d like to hear more about it, we suggest you listen to his discussion with Tim Ferriss in which he covers most of the bases.

Rowe also recently launched his new short-form podcast, The Way I Heard It, which is blazing its way up the iTunes charts.

Rowe talked with The Cheat Sheet about his podcast, the importance of blue-collar jobs, and how to save yourself from becoming unemployed as we face an increasingly automated world.

The Cheat Sheet: You were born and raised in Baltimore. How did growing up there shape you into the Mike Rowe we know and love today?

Mike Rowe: I go to Baltimore at least once every six weeks — my parents are there, and my friends are there. I still think of it as, not just the place that I’m from, but an actual place that matters. I’m still connected to it. But I grew up in “the county” (Baltimore County). My granddad had a farmhouse in the county many years ago, and Interstate 95 was destined to run through it. So, the state allowed him to move to wherever he wished. He chose a hilltop in the County, surrounded by woods and a stream.

He was brilliant in this way, my granddad — he only went to school through the 7th grade, but he was an electrician, a plumber, a welder, and a mechanic. All licensed and certified by the time he was 30. He was kind of a mechanical genius. He identified a piece of property, moved his house to it, built his house next to it, where I grew up, and essentially had the whole thing confined in about 100 acres of densely wooded area.

So, for the first 12 years of my life, I basically thought I was Huck Finn. I grew up very sheltered, in that sense. I went to a public school that I could ride a horse to, and I had no sense at all that I was two and a half miles from the city line. It was a very cool way to grow up.

CS: How does a kid growing up on a farm become an opera singer?

MR: It’s a great question, and if I answer you honestly, it’ll sound like it was a part of a plan. But there was none.

I wanted very much to follow in my grandfather’s footsteps. I wanted to be able to build a house without a blueprint. I fully expected, and assumed, that I had inherited the “handy” gene, which everyone in my family seems to have. But, it’s recessive — I didn’t get it. It’s not that I’m incompetent, it just doesn’t come easy. My foundations are lumpy. My sheetrock isn’t plumb. It just doesn’t come easily.

After flunking out of all my shop classes — not flunking, C minuses — my grandfather pulled me aside and said “Look, if you want to be a tradesman, you can. You just need a different tool box.” It was devastating to hear, at 17, that the thing you were sure you were gonna do is simply not going to line up. But in hindsight, it was the best advice I ever got.

So, I went in a radically different direction. I enrolled in a community college. I studied acting, writing, philosophy, and English. And I studied singing. At $26 per credit, I could afford to experiment. I stayed at that community college for three years, and took every course I could. I learned to sing — I had a great high school music teacher — so, I could carry a tune.

One day, I decided I wanted to act, but I couldn’t get my SAG card. The loophole: I found a sister union through which to gain membership. Long story short, I got in the opera because I needed to get into the Screen Actor’s Guild. So, I thought it would be easier to fake my way into an opera in order to get a SAG card. The plan was to get hired, and quit after a show, then go about the business of being a TV star.

The plan failed when I found I really like the opera. The music was great, the girls were fun, and I got to dress up like a pirate. I stayed for seven years.

CS: The opera is as far from a “dirty job” as I can imagine…

MR: Try putting one of those costumes on. It’s 50 pounds of burlap, soaked with sweat.

CS: What’s your favorite job you’ve ever had?

MR: On Dirty Jobs, there were 300. But there were probably 300 before that — all freelance, Hollywood, and opera types of things. After the opera and QVC, I had a lot of jobs. Looking back, QVC was a great opportunity to figure out how TV worked and to talk to a live audience every day with no real parameters or real instructions. It was the first time an employer gave me enough rope to truly hang myself.

If it’s not that one, then it’s probably American Airlines. At some point, I think in 1995, American Airlines realized the space they had on their TV screens was incredibly valuable. But they never put anything on that had a commercial element to it. So, they hired me to produce and host a show called On Air TV, where I could fly anywhere in the world with what they called a “D3” — it was a golden ticket. I’d get on these planes, fly anywhere in the world, get off, and I’d spend a few days in Tokyo, or Sydney, or Bruges, and do a show about those cities. I’d deliver it to American, and they’d put advertising in it. They made a fortune.

I had that job for about a year before they realized just how valuable that screen time was, and fired me, and hired Jerry Seinfeld. But the funny thing is, they never took back the “D3”. They forgot about it. So, from 1997 until sometime in 1998, I flew wherever I wanted, with whoever I wanted to fly with, for free.

CS: What’s the most egregious example of you abusing that golden ticket?

MR: I went around the world four times.

I was a very interesting date. It was like, “Oh, we should have breakfast.” And I would be like, “Yeah, I know a place.” And suddenly, we’re in New Orleans.

Then they’d say, “What? Who are you??” Then I could look at them and say, “No one of any consequence.” It was all very mysterious and fun.

mike rowe
Mike Rowe working a very dirty job | Mike Rowe official Facebook page

CS: You’ve straddled the blue and white collar worlds working in television, and specifically with shows like Dirty Jobs. What are the main differences and similarities?

MR: If you were looking at those worlds as Venn diagrams, the amount of shared real estate is more than you’d think.

I know a lot of guys, in my own field of entertainment, who work on crab boats, work on submarines, work on bridges chronicling all kinds of vocations. It was a big deal for me when I convinced the network to allow my crew to appear in Dirty Jobs — that was the first time that had happened in a meaningful way, and it helped combine the worlds. TV production is a dirty job, especially when you’re doing a show called Dirty Jobs. One of the things I’m the most proud of is being able to chronicle the making of the show at a time when behind the scenes photography and breaking the fourth wall were pretty much forbidden.

We tried to be as transparent as possible because of this very question — I believed that making that show could be included among any list of dirty jobs you want to make.

Aside from that, you can’t compare a coal miner or bridge worker to a writer, producer, or TV host. There is virtually nothing in common between those vocations, except for the thing that my granddad told me when I was way too young to see the wisdom in it. The idea of approaching your vocation as a trade — that’s the thing that I think can help save the workforce in its current state.

What I’ve found is people who look at their career, through the lens of a freelancer or tradesman, are happier, and they do better. There’s less certainty than in white-collar professions, but they thrive. People on each side — blue-collar or white-collar — who approach their work with the mindset of a tradesman.

CS: You’ve said that we have a “dysfunctional relationship” with work in America. What do you mean by that?

MR: We’ve identified work as the approximate cause of our general unhappiness. We’ve done it in a lot of different ways. It’s a belief brought up in pop culture and in literature. It’s a belief that a lot of people have embraced. The secret becomes, if you’re unhappy, what’s the problem? The problem is that you’re working too much. The problem is your job, or your boss. The problem is that all these things I have to do are in the way of my happiness. So, when I say that our relationship with work is dysfunctional, I just mean that we’ve identified work itself, as the reason for our unhappiness.

To this day, if there’s a plumber portrayed in a sitcom, the odds are he’s 300 pounds with a giant butt crack. And if you’re looking at a commercial for a major bank or investment company — the whole proposition is that “We’ll help you retire faster, we’ll help you work less.” Everywhere you turn are examples of happiness deferred because of work.

Look at the shows, like American Idol. For 15 years, the whole show was based on the idea of not only success, but of overnight success. We’re disconnected. And to be disconnected from work is to take a lot of the fundamental jobs for granted. It’s not much different from being disconnected from food, which most people are. You have 1.5% of the population feeding 300 million people three times a day. We’re not impressed by that, we’re not gobsmacked — which is why farmers suffer from the same sort of stigmas and stereotypes skilled tradesmen do.

The people who benefit the most from their work are the least impressed by it. That’s the disconnect.

CS: Why do we, as a culture, look down or demean blue-collar work? Or at least steer people away from those jobs?

MR: I’m not a cultural anthropologist or economist, but speaking for myself? I think it starts with parents. It’s perfectly natural for parents — successful parents, middle-class parents, lower-income parents — any parent instinctively wants something better for their kid than what they had. It’s hard-wired into the species. The problem is, what does “better” mean? There’s a whole list of things you can’t control, but you can control the definition of a “good job.”

Look back over the past 120 years at what used to be considered a “good job.” You’ll see vast changes as the quality of living flows, and the quality of employment improved, we began to aggressively recalibrate the kind of work that we deemed aspirational. When we were a mostly agrarian country, we aspired to be farmers. We loved our dirty farmers because we were so connected to the food they grew, and dependent upon it. Then we transformed, fundamentally, to an industrial country. So, we didn’t demean farmers, we just stopped being amazed by them. We focused on the wonder of skilled trades. The wonder of the skyscraper. The wonder of the Brooklyn Bridge. We loved our tradesmen — they woke up clean, and came home dirty. And when they were done? Holy shit! The Erie Canal! Hoover Dam!

Today, guys like my grandad would be invisible, just like farmers. Because our GDP is no longer dominated by industrial might or agrarian efficiencies. It’s dominated by financial acumen and technical breakthroughs. So what does a “good job” look like in a society that is paying its bills through technology and financial services? It looks like a white-collar job. A job that requires a four-year degree.

If you combine the basic social inertia and pressure to constantly redefine what a “good job” is, with a parents’ natural inclination to give their kid something better than what they had, then you can start to see this incredible pressure being exerted on younger generations.

So, it’s not the rich pricks twirling their mustaches in the corner offices that are screwing things up. It’s well-intended parents and guidance counselors who really, truly have their hearts in the right place and want to impart good advice … so you get this general sense of a one size fits all. And you get the sense that the best path, for most people, is a four-year degree. I’m not saying that’s bad advice, just that the pressure is there.

CS: What’s your advice to someone just entering the job market, in that case? Say, an 18-year-old fresh out of high school?

MR: Well, I would never offer any advice of any kind to anybody I didn’t know. Advice is one of those things you ask for when you already know the answer, but really wish you didn’t. Most people know — when people ask for advice, what they really want is corroboration.

But assuming I knew the person, and didn’t deem them to be psychotic or sociopathic, I would tell them “Look, I’m 54. I still don’t know what I want to do. I’m having a ball.” I got a toolbox when I was 22 that made sense to me, and I’ve tried ever since then to apply my trade. Some years have been better than others. But in the end? I’m thrilled with my choices and comfortable with the fact that there’s a lot of uncertainty in my life. But that’s just me.

So, if you want to get married and have kids? My advice isn’t the best thing for you.

CS: At the other end of the spectrum, people who are finding themselves out of work, like coal miners for example. What can people in that position do?

MR: I think it’s a massive problem.

If you look at the downsizing of the coal miner — as a result of fracking, or as a result of regulation — it doesn’t really matter, he’s out of work either way. And you’re missing the bigger point, which is the advent of automation. That’s the thing nobody wants to talk about that scares people so deeply and to their core, that they don’t know where to put it. Unless you’re a Luddite, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican, it’s very hard to look at technology as a bad thing.

If you let technology go, logically, what can we expect? It’s motivated by the belief that this is a good thing. And the unintended consequences are going to be a level of automation, driven by technology, that is going to completely replace people like miners. And eventually, people like frackers. It’s going to redefine every single thing that we’re doing.

It was Huxley who said, “the second-greatest threat to freedom is total efficiency.”

CS: Yes, we’re starting to see it happen already…

MR: Yeah, and the people who are going to be hurt the most by it are those who bet heavily on specialization. For instance, in the manufacturing sector, “I’m a coal miner. Period. That’s what I do.” Well, that makes you a specialist. It doesn’t make you too much different from a doctor who only works on feet, a podiatrist. There’s probably a future in podiatry as long as people are bipedal, but if something were to happen to eliminate that position, then it’s a whole new conversation. That conversation isn’t happening in podiatry because the threat isn’t imminent.

But the threat here is absolutely imminent — for truck drivers, and coal miners, etc. Their problem is a combination of the fact that they’re specialists in their field, not generalists, and that they made a fundamental miscalculation. They believed that the company they work for was primarily concerned with their health, well-being, future, and personal economy. They’re not. It doesn’t make the company bad. They just bought an argument, that’s been around for a long time, that says the first order of business is to take care of the worker. That’s never been the case.

If you believe your future is your boss’s primary concern, and you limited your skill set to a super specific thing, then you’re vulnerable…The coal miner who can do nothing but mine coal is going to have a problem, in the same way that the truck driver who can do nothing but drive a truck is going to have a problem. But if you can fix diesel engines? You’re golden.

TV personality Mike Rowe , host of "Dirty Jobs", takes part in a roundtable discussion on manufacturing
Mike Rowe , host of “Dirty Jobs”, takes part in a roundtable discussion on manufacturing in 2008 | Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages

CS: Can you tell us about your foundation, mikeroweWORKS Foundation?

MR: It’s a work in progress. I launched it on Labor Day in 2008, just as the financial crisis was officially under way, and unemployment was nearing double-digits nationally. I did it because the majority of the people I met on Dirty Jobs who owned businesses were all telling me the same story. They were all telling me that the single biggest challenge for them was finding people who were willing to learn a skill that was actually in demand.

By 2009, we had taken the show to every state. Everywhere I went I saw help wanted signs. And I thought it was weird. Why were the headlines dominated by this “lack of jobs,” and the number of people who can’t find work, versus everything I’m seeing on the road and hearing from the people I’m talking to, which is this desperate attempt to find people who are willing to reinvent themselves.

The original purpose of the foundation was to shine a light on jobs that existed, but didn’t get any love. We built a trade resource center that listed those jobs around the country, along with educational alternatives that would train people for those jobs.

My job was to be a cheerleader for that … and I still do. I go to Congress every couple of years and bang my shoe on the table, yell at Senators. It’s fun.

CS: You’re doing a new podcast now. Can you tell us about that?

MR: The idea with Dirty Jobs was to find a way to make the inside of a sewer interesting. In the broadcasting world, it’s a big challenge. Making history interesting, to the average person today, is just as big of a challenge. Just look at the History Channel. History’s a hard sell. My dad was a history teacher — and biographies. Those are two subjects that I dig.

Paul Harvey — he would take famous figures and reveal them in a five-minute mystery about some unknown element in their life. They were really fun to listen to. That’s what all of this is. I can’t do the rest of the story, so I call it The Way I Heard It. It’s either a very short history lesson, or a surprising biography presented in a mystery, that I write myself.

I do one once per week, and I’m told we’re doing pretty well. So, I’m putting my toe in that world, and I really like it.

Subscribe to Mike Rowe’s new podcast, The Way I Heard It, at his website, or on iTunes.

You can check out the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, and watch his show Somebody’s Gotta Do It on CNN.

Follow Sam on Facebook and Twitter @SliceOfGinger

More from Money & Career Cheat Sheet: