Exclusive — Mike Rowe: ‘We Have to Make Work Cool Again’
Known as the “dirtiest man on television,” Mike Rowe of Dirty Jobs and Deadliest Catch fame joined Breitbart News Sunday this weekend on SiriusXM Patriot Channel 125 to discuss his new show Returning the Favor and combating stigmas around blue collar work.
Rowe’s new show Returning the Favor aims to highlight positive stories of people helping the communities across the country, and is now in its fourth season on Facebook. Rowe rose to fame on the Discovery Channel with the show Dirty Jobs, where he highlighted different blue collar jobs around the country, and narrating the network’s Deadliest Catch and other shows.
Rowe, who also runs the Mike Rowe Works Foundation, explained that stigmas and stereotypes against blue collar work in America are “tipping” in the right direction but that there is a lot more work to be done with American workers. Rowe said he thinks it is important parents and kids consider trades, apprenticeships, fellowships, and technical degrees instead of the standard path of debt-crushing four-year university degree that does not always promise employment upon graduation.
“It’s tipping. It’s tipping. It takes time, but it’s starting to,” Rowe said when asked if the perceptions of blue collar jobs have improved in recent years, “Remember, for the last 40 years, what we’ve been telling parents and kids is that if they don’t get a four-year degree they’re essentially screwed and they’re going to wind up stuck turning a wrench. So, we promote one form of education at the expense of all the others. Never mind apprenticeships or fellowships or two-year schools or community college, the four-year degree is the gold standard. So what are the results of doing that? A couple things: First off, shop class is gone from high school. It’s by and large gone. We’ve removed optically just about every visualization of those kinds of jobs from the eyes of an entire generation. How about debt? $1.6 trillion in student loans is currently on the books because we’ve lent money we don’t have to kids who can’t afford to pay it back to train them for jobs that don’t exist anymore. This is crazy, right? But while that is all unfolding, we have 7.1 million open positions at a time of near full employment. This is the real thing: If you had 7 million open jobs most of which don’t require a four-year degree, and were still telling kids they’re screwed if they don’t sign on the dotted line to borrow vast sums of money, you can see the disconnect. Right now, we have 3.5 percent unemployment and 7 million open jobs. It’s not just a skills gap—it’s a will gap. Because we have a generation of people who don’t look at entire categories of jobs as the opportunities they are. You mentioned before the stigmas, the stereotypes, the myths, the misconceptions. Those things are real, they’re huge, and they’re discouraging vast numbers of people from pursuing opportunities that exist.”
Rowe said that what America’s leaders—from politicians on down through companies seeking workers—have to do is to “make work cool again.”
“What we need to do, by hook or crook, is change the prevailing definition of a good job,” Rowe said. “How we do that is a multi-front battle. It involves guidance counselors thinking differently, and by the way it requires us compensating guidance counselors differently—many are bonused out on their ability to get kids into a four-year school. That’s crazy, right? We’re just encouraging the wrong behavior. We have to talk to parents more candidly about what’s possible when they’re sitting around the kitchen table with their kids and of course, we have to make work cool again. How do you do that? It’s in part PR, messaging—companies need to do a better job of recruiting. So many companies get in their own way when they start to talk about the opportunities that exist within their own corporations. So, it’s bad PR, it’s forty years of stereotypes and nonsense and when you combine all of that together it’s just a hot mess of discouragement and misinformation that’s hurting the country in my humble view.”
Rowe, who is decidedly against being openly political, noted that he looks at stories from a micro-level, on a case-by-case basis through his foundation and over the years through his various shows.
“The reason I avoid politics—well I avoid it for two reasons. I don’t need half the country to hate me—it doesn’t make me effective as the CEO of a foundation,” Rowe said. “But secondly, politics by nature requires you to ask the question you just asked in a very broad, macro way. Right? We have to consider policies that are essentially cookie-cutter because in the political world your ideas need to impact the largest number of people possible. That’s macro-works. My foundation is called Mike Rowe Works. Yes, my name is in it but it’s supposed to be MICRO. I’m looking for one person at a time. I can’t gauge the worth ethic of a cohort or a group or a race or a star sign. I need to meet the individual and if we want to reward the qualities that are sorely lacking you can’t take a cookie-cutter approach. That’s sort of a way of saying I’m not in politics because I’m not interested in policies that have these giant effects on large numbers of people. It’s not that I’m opposed to them, but it’s just that the only way to get elected is to go out there and talk in platitudes and tropes and generalities and bromides. That’s what people are sick of hearing.”
A recent column from Rich Kaarlgard at Forbes magazine suggested Rowe should run for governor of California, the state in which he lives. While Rowe didn’t rule out running for governor one day, he made it clear that while he believes he is much more effective discussing these issues he is focused on surrounding the dignity of hard work and decency of the broader American public while not running for office but being an advocate from the various platforms he has.
“It does need to be talked about, but the question is am I more effective talking about it as a governor or an alderman or—look, I get it,” Rowe said. “People want me to run not because I’m qualified but because they’re just tired of the binary choices and they’re tired of people saying things just to get elected. I think people like what I’m saying because I’m not running for anything, except maybe another season of Returning the Favor. But I’m not out there asking for your vote.”
He further elaborated on Kaarlgard’s column by criticizing former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg—a 2020 Democrat presidential candidate—for praising California, which Rowe said is destined for a moment of truth economically down the road when the “capital gains scam poops the bed.”
“Rich Kaarlgard over at Forbes has written a great article and it’s not necessarily because I think I’m the right choice,” Rowe said. “But he makes some interesting points about California and your listeners should be hip to this. Michael Bloomberg just said California was a model. A model for what? I live out there. I know there’s been a surplus on the books since 2011. But people don’t understand the California state budget is disproportionately weighted by capitals gains taxes, 13.3 percent, the highest in the country. That money comes out of rising real estate prices and a rising stock market, both of which have risen faster than at any time before. That stuff is going to course correct, it’s going to come back down to earth sometime in the next few years and when it does California is going to have some massive problems. But, it’s even worse than that. The industries left in California, what are they? Tech and biotech, fine. Entertainment and tourism. That’s it. Manufacturing is gone. Aerospace is gone. Energy! Those are the industries that the state could fall back on when this whole capital gains scam poops the bed, but we’re just not positioned for it. Plus another thing nobody is talking about: California is aging 50 percent faster than the rest of the country. People are leaving in record numbers and those who are staying on the older side of young. I don’t know what to tell the next governor of California other than the dirty jobs that I’m associated with, that’s why Rich wrote the article. He believes, and I don’t disagree, that manufacturing needs to come back to the Golden State. He believes that energy jobs need to come back, because those dirty jobs aren’t nearly as dirty as they used to be. In fact, they’re on-ramps straight into six-figure careers. People just don’t know it.”
Rowe did say that in recent years he has noticed some improvement in key Rust Belt states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—key states that voted for President Donald Trump in 2016, the first time in decades each has gone for a Republican—but not nearly enough.
“Sure. I see what I look at,” Rowe said when asked if those areas are seeing improvement in manufacturing in his view. “I’m the blind guy who grabs the tusk of the elephant and concludes the thing is made of ivory. That’s another reason why I try to avoid politics. I can’t talk broadly about what’s happening in Michigan or Wisconsin or Pennsylvania because I know for a fact, I’ve been in the places where manufacturing is resurgent but right next door there are counties that are devastated, where the opportunities aren’t as obvious. This is why mobility, another thing people don’t talk about as much as they ought to, but the willingness and ability to go to where the work is, that was always kind of a foregone conclusion until it wasn’t. I talk to kids all the time who say ‘this is the job I want, and this is the pay I think would be fair, and this is the zip code where I’d like to have the job please.’ It just doesn’t work like that. So, yeah, sure, manufacturing is resurgent in a lot of different places, but the question is are you able to get to where the work is. That’s why my foundation focuses on skills that travel with you. Welding—hundreds of people have learned to weld through our program, taken that knowledge and morphed it into heavy equipment repair and wound up in North Dakota or offshore making six figures a year and working when they want. Those are the stories that I’m most interested in telling. I’m honestly a little ahead of my skis when I talk about big macroeconomic or geopolitical trends. I don’t know what I’m talking about—I know what I read and I’m really just repeating stuff to you. The only thing I can talk about credibly is the fact that learning a skill that’s truly in demand and working your butt off still works. I’ve seen it work hundreds and hundreds of times, and I’m enthused by that. I do think if you’re looking for work, there’s never been a better time to be alive than right now in this country—7.3 million open jobs. Corporations are desperate—desperate—to find people with the right skills.”
Through his Mike Rowe Works Foundation, Rowe aims to reward work ethic among the broader public through grants and other programs—and everyone who comes through his foundation signs what is called the SWEAT Pledge.
“If we want to reward work ethic, which we do, then we need some kind of metric for it. Some kind of mechanism. It’s a very hard thing to gauge,” Rowe said when asked to explain the SWEAT pledge. “We ask our applicants to submit references, videotapes, essays. And one of the things we ask our applicants to do is sign the SWEAT pledge. It is as you say a 12-point pledge that is essentially a statement of belief. I wrote it because it reflects my worldview and very selfishly because it is my foundation and I want to encourage a certain type of behavior and attitude. I want people who contribute to the foundation to know that the people we are rewarding have a worldview that is consistent with that. If the country had an HR department, and we were looking to hire dream employees, these are some of the qualities I think would make employees more hirable and ultimately more successful.”
Rowe’s next season of his new show, Returning the Favor, airs online on Facebook starting this week on Monday evening—and is beginning its fourth season. it aims to highlight what Rowe calls “bloody do-gooders.”
“At a glance, you would call it a feel good show,” Rowe said of the new show. “In reality, it’s the making of a feel good show for Facebook. What that means is, in the same way we approached Dirty Jobs, no second takes and a kind of warts-and-all approach of making TV, we do that with this show. Except now, I’m not looking for people in sewers who get dirty, I’m looking for bloody do-gooders. You know them. They’re the people in your neighborhood, slightly better than you, doing things that benefit everyone. They’re terrific people. We show up. We meet them. We have a few laughs and then we surprise them with something extravagant that allows them to do more of whatever it is they’re doing. Then they cry and then we leave and go to another town and do it again.”
The show, he added, is fueled entirely by the audience—meaning people across the country pitch ideas to the producers via social media about people in their communities who do good things, and then they vet them and then go profile as many as they can.
“It’s aggressively grassroots. The show is programmed 100 percent by the people who watch it,” Rowe said. “I’ve got a Facebook page with 5.5 million people on it. The Returning the Favor page has a bunch of people on it. Then there’s something called the Returning the Favor effect. This is where the show takes on a complexion that the network wouldn’t be able to do. That page suggests hundreds, thousands of ideas a week. They nominate people constantly. Our production company does what they can to try and get a better sense of who’s where and what should we do from a production standpoint and once that gets nailed down I get a memo, I hop on a plane, we meet the gang and we just start shooting. At the end of that day, we have a show. Really, just to super-simplify it, this is me just tapping the country on the shoulder and saying ‘hey what about her? What about him? Meet these people.’ Check this show out. It’s probably the only thing in your newsfeed that won’t make you depressed or throw up in your mouth.”
Rowe, who said he has a preference for telling the stories of first responders, law enforcement, and veterans, added that there are so many people across the country doing good things for their communities that it is impossible to miss stories like these. In its first three seasons, Rowe’s Returning the Favor has done episodes in nearly 40 states and aims to hit the rest of the 50 United States in this fourth season starting this week.
“You have to go out of your way to ignore them because like you say they really are everywhere,” Rowe said. “It’s not just the difference between good news and bad news. It’s really a sign of the times we’re in. And when I say that, I don’t mean just the fact that everything is politicized, I mean that everything is binary. It’s got to be good or bad. Left or right. Right or wrong. Left or right. Blue collar or white collar, and so forth. We’re just in this crazy graft of putting everybody in a particular box. So the only way I could think of to avoid doing that was to focus on a couple of things that are truly nonpartisan. If Dirty Jobs was a rumination on work, which it was, then this is a rumination on decency and just a reminder that not everyone sucks quite as bad as we’ve been told they do.”
People can submit ideas to Rowe’s show through the special Facebook group his team up.
LISTEN TO MIKE ROWE ON BREITBART NEWS SUNDAY: