The former host of the Discovery channel’s “Dirty Jobs” received the Independent Women’s Forum “Distinguished Gentleman” award over the weekend. MikeRowe inspired the audience with tales demonstrating both the commonplace and the extraordinary in his acceptance speech, including on the role of moms, taking risks, perception, and work ethic.
Whether you’re a pediatrician or a plumber, an avid fan of the show or not, the speech is well worth your time.
Here are five key points.
1. Never underestimate the power of motivation and humble beginnings.
While most of America might recognize Rowe’s tanned face and rugged good looks from “Dirty Jobs,” which ran for eight seasons, few know of the show’s humble beginnings. During his speech, Rowe described how it all started.
He was “impersonating a host” for a local network’s show called “Evening Magazine” in 2001. It was an entertainment segment that ran after the news. Rowe went to wineries, restaurants and swanky events, profiling the glitz and glamour of San Francisco. Hardly satisfied with his work, but unsure of what to do about it, his mother — whom he referenced positively at least a dozen times in his speech — phoned him and reminded him of his grandfather, who was aging.
Rowe’s grandfather wasn’t anyone famous, wealthy, or reputable by any means, but the kind of man many of us who have any kind of blue collar roots can recognize. Even though he had the education of a 7th grader, he had learned valuables trades and could do the work, at any given time, of an electrical contractor, plumber, steamfitter, welder, and more. Rowe said he could build a house without a blueprint and could repair almost anything.
“He was heroic in his day,” he said. “Today, sadly, he would be overlooked.”
When his mother called, she simply said, “Wouldn’t it be terrific if your grandfather turned on the television and saw you doing something that looked like work?” That was all the motivation Rowe needed.
2. Risk taking and persistence will pay off.
In that phone call, Rowe said he had “what the Greeks called a peripeteia” — a reversal of fortune or a sudden change in circumstances. “I realized everything I thought I knew about my job was wrong.” Rowe went to his boss and said, “Why do we always have to film ‘Evening Magazine’ at wineries? Why not the sewer?”
The boss didn’t think enough people were even tuning in to care, so he gave Rowe the green light. While Rowe was in the sewer, threatening to get eaten by cockroaches and overcome by the stench, he determined this kind of gruesome and gross, yet vital, work would be the focus of his show.
“I put together a segment that I knew would get me fired. It’s okay, it got me here,” he said to applause. Without risk and focused insight, Rowe’s idea never would have seen a television channel.
After he got fired, Rowe pitched his idea to everyone in the news industry. “Everyone said no except Discovery,” he said. In 2003, they took him on, tweaked the title, and when the show wrapped in 2012, he had done 300 dirty jobs over the course of ten years, filming half a dozen times in every state.
“In my role as a quasi-host I really functioned as an apprentice doing the kind of jobs that make civilized life possible,” he said, quoting the show’s tagline. The show enjoyed tremendous success. So many Americans loved it that in 2008, it was the number one show on cable.
3. With risk comes responsibility.
“Dirty Jobs” went along without a hitch, gaining fans each year. In 2009, the job market crashed, the housing market burst, and everyone was trying to figure out the American economy and its nuances. Who else to go to but the guy hocking “dirty jobs” every day?
“Suddenly I was getting phone calls from The Wall Street Journal and other serious publications. They wanted my take on the jobs report.” He didn’t think he was qualified, Rowe told the audience with a kind of humility that still sounds like he doesn’t think he’s up to the task. “I just tried to do a show that wouldn’t make my grandfather throw his Budweiser at the TV set.”
A reporter came to Rowe with “two seemingly dichotomous data points: rising unemployment in 2009 and the widening skills gap,” and asked him if he could explain it. At the time, almost ten years ago now, America was looking at 10 to 11 percent unemployment, and yet there were 2.3 million jobs available that no one wanted — a skills gap, as it were.
“In my opinion our country had waged a cold war on the traditional notions of work,” he said he told the reporter. “It included a series of completely absurd portrayals of work on television and a ridiculous number of bestsellers that promised success and happiness in maybe 4 hours a week instead of 40.”
Rowe also mentioned the increasing amount of student debt juxtaposed with the amount of job opportunities. Another problem, as he saw it, were guidance counselors who encouraged kids to go to colleges but not consider any other kind of work.
It made some sense to the reporter and even more to Rowe. Yet the reporter said, “You seem like the kind of guy who gives a damn. What are you going to do about it?” Rowe joked he “was castrating lambs at the time in Craig, Colorado.” What more did a financial reporter want him to explain, let alone do? Yet it became increasingly clear to Rowe that do something he must. After all, it was producing the show in the first place that enabled him to understand what others seemed to view as an enigma.
4. Don’t be afraid to do something about the problems you see.
So after Rowe finished castrating lambs in Colorado, he reviewed the journals he had been keeping of his shows; the jobs he’d learned about, and the people who taught them to him. As he read and re-read, a narrative of what he kept hearing took shape. It centered on a challenge mostly small business owners had explained to him over the years:
Finding people who were willing to show up early and stay late and learn a skill that was actually in demand. The business of recruitment was a difficult thing. Everywhere I went on the road was ‘Help wanted’ signs. The least I could do was to shine a light on some opportunities that typically go ignored.
The statistics back Rowe up. There are currently 1.5 trillion dollars of student loans on the books, and seven million jobs available, 75 percent of which don’t require a 4 year degree. But they do require training. Rowe wanted to provide such training as a way to begin to bridge the gap between goals and completion, college and a job, and failure and dignity.
Eventually, Rowe built a foundation called Mike Rowe Works. It’s modest, he said repeatedly. Over time it evolved into a scholarship fund. “We’ve raised between $5 and 6 million in the form of work ethic scholarships,” he said.
They give cash to kids who want and need to learn a skill. A couple thousand will help with a plumber’s license, for example.
5. Never underestimate the value of work and work ethic.
The concept of Rowe’s foundation, which offers work ethic scholarships is brilliant, because that’s one of the two key pieces he believes are missing in the debate about unemployment and the skills gap today. There are athletic scholarships, academic scholarships, and merit scholarships: Why not reward certain kids pursuing jobs that aren’t as glamorous?
Since Rowe first got that phone call from the reporter, the skills gap has increased to nearly seven million. “The skills gap is a reflection of what we value,” he said. This is almost certainly true, but Rowe didn’t say this condescendingly, judgmentally, or with a hint of sarcasm. You don’t get the feeling he hates Silicon Valley or Manhattan, just that not everybody is suited for the kind of work that persists there.
Parents, peers, news organizations and education institutions themselves applaud kids going to college who will graduate six figures in debt and may have to move in with their parents afterward because they can’t get a job paying more than $30,000 per year. Rowe wants to know why these same folks — or society as a whole — doesn’t start talking about plumbing the way it does pediatricians? Or welders the way it does lawyers?
These jobs are needed. If people filled those gaps, those guys would be employed, and Americans would stop having to wait several days to get their toilets fixed. The reason this hasn’t happened yet is because of the public’s perception of these kinds of jobs.
“What we need to do is change the way people think about work,” Rowe said. “Change the perceptions and misperceptions, the myths, the stereotypes, and stigmas that are keeping kids from pursuing [other kinds of work].”
Rowe likened the reckoning that needs to happen with our country’s current perception with blue collar jobs to that of what happened in the PR campaign regarding litter in the 1950s. A focused PR campaign intertwining the private and public spheres changed America’s perception of litter. With humility and verve, Rowe finished his speech.
“We don’t need American Idols,” he said. “We need American icons. Icons of work. The country needs a parapateia. We need to tell better stories of men and women who master a trade. We have to stop telling kids to blindly follow their passion and show them the opportunities that exist. That was the big, overarching message of ‘Dirty Jobs.’ The message that the headlines that ultimately caught up to: There is dignity in all work and opportunity is alive and well.”