MIKE ROWE: You don’t have to go to college

Christopher Bedford Former Editor in Chief, The Daily Caller News Foundation
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Mike Rowe has some good news for American parents: Your 23-year-old kids don’t need to live on your couch anymore. That is, if they skip college, learn a skill and work hard.

Because college isn’t for everyone. Hell, it isn’t for most people. And that’s OK, because the Bureau of Labor and Statistics points out that 75 percent of jobs created over the next decade won’t take a diploma.

Hell, there are 155,000 janitors with bachelor degrees right now, according to Bob Morse, who is the director of data research at U.S. News and World Report — the magazine that produces its definitive college rankings every year. That’s more people than there are chemists.

Meanwhile, this year, Americans’ collective student debt surpassed $1 trillion.

So what gives? Why aren’t more people spending less time and money, and pursuing a trade that will win them gainful employment?

Take a look at the culture, Rowe told an audience at the Charles Koch Institute’s Diploma Dilemma panel.

“When’s the last time you saw a plumber or a guy who knows how to fix a refrigerator really portrayed on TV without a work belt or a yard of butt crack showing?” he said. “‘American Idol’ is our number one show. What’s the message there? ‘I’ll have my fame please and I’d like that now. I’d like that now.'”

But it’s not just pop culture: Parents and counselors share the blame when a kid chooses. The American cult of self esteem plays a large role. “‘Somebody told me I was a precious snowflake,'” Rowe feigned, “‘and I took the test and I’m smart and I went to college and now where’s my job?'”

The facts, according to former George Washington University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, is “not everybody should go to college… What society owes them is an education that allows them to make a living and give back.”

Bottom line is a college diploma isn’t for everyone: It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and is a four-year commitment that could be spent learning a trade and getting a good start in life. But between pop culture and the cult of college, getting that message out is hard work. That’s why Rowe founded the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and a website,, to get the word out.

The Daily Caller sat down with Rowe, and he had some strong words on the culture, the government and PETA:

TheDC: The federal government is deeply involved in education. Do you see any role they play, or something you’d like to see from them to try and change in the United States how skills are pursued and how they’re portrayed?

Rowe: You know, not really. Only because I don’t think a big, splashy, traditional approach will work, and I also think the taxpayers have spent enough money. I think there’s enough NGO stuff that can push this forward. I think there’s enough for-profit stuff.

Organizations like Tech Shop, which are springing up around the country now. Imagine Thomas Edison’s garage — if it existed today it would be filled with laser cutters and every state-of-the-art machine there is. That’s what they have, and they sell very modest memberships, and the invention that’s coming out of Tech Shop is amazing.

Skills USA, it’s kind of like the Boy Scouts only smaller, but it’s focused on school trades. There are chapters all over the country. Just knowing about those organizations would be a huge help.

I’d take federal money to buy media if they said, “Here’s some, tell the message in the way you wanna do it,” but that’ll never happen, so I’ll never ask.

TheDC: What is one thing, then, that you would like to see them not do — a regulation or a law that you see that has negatively impacted the image and robustness of the working man economy?

Rowe: That’s a dangerous question, and my honest answer is the unintended consequences of compliance have manifested themselves, and I’ve seen it in everything from fisheries, to construction projects, to you name it.

And it’s a tricky thing to talk about because the minute you take arms against it or question it then you really do incur the wrath of some angry acronym, whether it’s OSHA or PETA, or HSUS or EPA, somebody somewhere is going to be pissed off, because they don’t look at the totality of the job. They look through the lens of their own specific agenda and they regulate. They have a lot of power and they have purpose.

I was talking to a farmer the other day who was fined 1,200 bucks because the bottom rung on his ladder was bent, and his ladder was out, not even in a public place — in his barn — but he had employees. The bottom rung of the ladder was bent. $1,200. People say, “Why aren’t more people going into farming?” I don’t know. Maybe that has something to do with it.

TheDC: Something you mentioned was the positive impact of someone going out and getting a skill and getting a new truck and coming back to their neighborhood. A lot of things that guys do are motivated by how they think girls are going to perceive it. Maybe it’s because of our culture but girls look at you and say, “If you don’t have a college degree, mom’s gonna say you’re a loser.” Do you see a way around that to romanticize things like the work you’re doing?

ROWE: It’s not something I’ve looked at too closely because there are a lot of women on “Dirty Jobs” too, and there are a lot of women in these trade areas. The bigger problem is, are we presenting the opportunities as viable and as legitimate as they are, and the answer is ‘No’; and what can we do to help correct that?

And that goes to your question. People are deeply suspicious now of being marketed to, and they should be, because everything just comes down to advertising and PR. So the advertising and PR around this issue, first and foremost, has to be honest, because people will smell the bullshit.

So if I hire an impossibly good looking guy to put on an impossibly predictable wardrobe and drive a super cool truck, we can do all that, but you know what that’s called? That’s called a Ford spot, or a Chevy spot. The thing I think will resonate and cut through is really just to tell the truth. Just tell the truth about what the opportunity is.

TheDC: How can we bring back the strong image of the working man as something to be sought after and to be desired?

Rowe: It’s not up to the person doing the work to elevate their own profile. It’s not fair or reasonable to expect them to, nor would they want to. At least in my experience on “Dirty Jobs,” these people, they are in on the joke. It’s the rest of us who are disconnected from the reality of the way the world works.

People confuse me all the time with a spokesman or an apologist for blue-collar work. I’m not — I’m a fan. No one’s asked me to speak on their behalf, but I’m involved in this now because that show reminded me in so many ways of my own personal disconnect. I just was reminded of a lot of things that I’d forgotten: very, very fundamental things about the nature of work, the definition of a good job and the value of a useful education. Nobody preached it to me. I just saw it 300 times in a row and had to conclude thusly.

TheDC: Your show was a precursor to things like “Ice Road Truckers” and “Deadliest Catch” and “Duck Dynasty.” They all came out of “Dirty Jobs,” so there is a shift I think in at least the reality television market with the explosion and celebration behind “Duck Dynasty,” there is an interesting thing that’s going on here. How do you respond to the way “Dirty Jobs” started, and that effort. What is the marketing strategy, if you could design it, that makes a shift in the perception behind skilled labor actually look like?

ROWE: Don’t confuse what’s happening in Hollywood at the moment with a concerted effort to bolster trades. Hollywood will make shows about nymphomaniacs in an octagon.

“Duck Dynasty” is an interesting exception because there’s so much family value and good will in that show, but if you look at the other shows, you’ll still see stereotypical portrayals.

“Deadliest Catch,” little different. I’m a little biased because I still narrate it and I know those guys personally, but look, these are TV shows. You get the extremes of the characters all the time. In the real world, these characters aren’t that extreme. They’re just regular people.

On “Dirty Jobs,” we looked for humor where you would expect to find drudgery. We didn’t have to look far to find it because that’s the way the world really works. But most of those other shows you mentioned, with the exception of “Duck Dynasty,” look for drama where it doesn’t exist. And they find it, and they produce it.

TheDC: To the parent that’s sitting there and their kid is 14, 15 and he says “I wanna go to trade school,” and these parents are college educated, they’re thinking, “You’re not following my path, what if I’m selling my kid short?” What would you say to that parent?

ROWE: First of all, I’d say, “You’re a good parent. You’re normal.”

There’s something in our DNA and in our brain stem that wants our kids to have it at least as good as we did, hopefully better. It just doesn’t mathematically play. How much better can I expect my kids to have a life than what I had? I’m having a good life. A lot of people are having a great life. So theres a progress trap in the arithmetic of that assumption, for one thing. So I wouldn’t slam the parent for having unrealistic expectations, but I would say you’re not really looking at the way of the world in 2013. You’re looking at it when you were your kid’s age. And it’s a whole new ball game. The world is not shaped the way you thought it was: 3.9 million available jobs right now, 12 percent require a four-year degree.


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Christopher Bedford

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