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Respecting the hard-working, skilled people who produce our energy

By Mike Rowe

According to the credits, I am the creator, executive producer, and host of a TV program on the Discovery Channel called Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe. In truth, I'm more like a perpetual apprentice.

For seven years, I've been traveling around the country, working alongside the people who grow our food, provide our energy, tend to our infrastructure, and manufacture our things.

To date, I've completed nearly 300 different jobs, visited every state, and worked in just about every industry. A less flattering assessment might suggest that I've been fired 300 times in less than seven years.

Dirty Jobs is first and foremost an entertainment program. It does however, have a mission statement, and every episode begins the same way. "My name is Mike Rowe, and this is my job. I explore the country looking for people who aren't afraid to get dirty. Hard-working men and women who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us."

For years, no one paid much attention to this mission. But in 2008, the recession made Dirty Jobs relevant in ways I never envisioned. As unemployment became a dominant topic, and my own dirty resume continued to expand, reporters were suddenly interested in my take on all sorts of work-related issues. For the most part, I pleaded ignorance and kept my mouth shut.

But when a writer from The Wall Street Journal asked me to "reconcile soaring unemployment with an ever-widening skills gap," I felt compelled to say something. So I referred him to the mission statement of the show and added, "once upon a time, our country was filled with people who weren't afraid to get dirty. Times have changed. The definition of a ‘good job' has changed."

I went on to suggest that the skills gap might not be a "problem," but rather a symptom of something much more fundamental; a societal disconnect with work, brought about by the rapid transformation of a manufacturing-based economy into one dominated by financial services and technology.

The reporter wanted to hear more so I kept talking. I talked about the subtle and not-so-subtle ways we marginalize work in today's culture. In the media, our portrayals of working people rarely surpass one dimensional stereotypes and predictable hyperbole.

I suggested a PR Campaign for skilled labor might be in order, and concluded by saying this Administration's goal of creating three million shovel ready jobs might have a better chance of succeeding if our society still respected the people willing to pick up a shovel.

When the article came out, the flood gates opened. On Labor Day of 2008, I launched mikeroweWORKS.com, my own modest PR Campaign for hard work and skilled labor. Its primary purpose is to challenge the notion that a career in the trades is some sort of "vocational consolation prize," handed out to workers unfit for a four-year degree.

The fact is, there are many initiatives out there making a difference. The problem that so many encounter, though, is a tendency to "preach to the choir". With respect to issues like the skills gap, we too often speak only to the people directly involved—the employers, desperate to hire skilled talent, and the unemployed, woefully untrained for the task at hand.

To really make a difference, we need to change the perceptions of a much larger audience and challenge the prevailing definition of a "good job." Americans need to see these workers for what they are—the key to civilized life as we know it. And that means a campaign and a message that reaches everybody.

Toward that end, I'm pleased to help launch a broad-based initiative sponsored by Discovery Communications that will reach millions and millions of people. Discovery's goal is to empower both unemployed and underemployed Americans with access to critical resources that will assist them in obtaining marketable job skills.

As the host of a TV show about hard work, people often assume I speak for tradesmen and skilled workers. In reality, I don't. I can only speak for myself and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing. The tradesmen I know don't need a spokesman. It's the rest of us who need to worry. Because a civilization without skilled labor, is not a civilization at all.

For the Record is an edited excerpt of Mike Rowe's presentation to the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation in May 2011.

January/February 2012