Mike Rowe Suggests a Solution for the Skills Gap

Dirty Jobs star says re-think, retrain and get an old school work ethic.

Dan Hedges from ENGINEERING.com met up with Mike Rowe at the USA Science and Engineering Festival this year. The star of Dirty Jobs says solving the skills gap starts with the definition of a good job, the willingness to retrain and an old school work ethic.


What were some of your favorite takeaways from all your years of doing the show Dirty Jobs?
“Oh man. Well we did 300, we shot in all 50 States, we started kind of accidentally (back in 2003), and we stopped shooting two years ago. But it’s still on! Dirty Jobs will be on the air for the next two to three hundred years. Discovery Channel has like 17 different channels, they’ll find a place for it.”

“But in general, you know, it was much more than a program for me. It was a platform really. You know, it was a place to really tell the truth about work; and for me to not think at all about being a host … As you probably know, it’s a very cool thing to figure out how to get paid for really being yourself, and not appearing any smarter than you are, or more competent than you are. So I spent 10 years really being a perpetual apprentice and it was the best gig ever. Because it took me to some weird places, obviously. But I never had to pretend to be smarter than I was. That was good.”


Do you have advice for students and adults looking for careers on what is a good job and what is a bad job?
“Yeah, well you know opinions vary. Personally, I think a lot of what’s going on in the country right now that’s causing a lot of drama is we don’t have a unified definition of what a good job is.”

“We love to categorize work, you know: that’s a good job, that a bad job, that’s clean, that’s dirty, that’s blue-collar, that’s white-collar, that’s STEM, that’s skill. That’s all a sucker’s bet. And it’s creating all kinds of gaps in our expectations, and it’s those gaps that people fall into.”

“I mean not to overstate it, it’s kind of a trap. You know, when people talk about the skills gap they talk about a group of employees who don’t have the necessary skills to fill a bunch of opportunity, right?”

“And so the conversation goes something like this: companies can’t get the employees they need, and employees can’t get the skills they need, so those people are out of work and that’s bad for those people.”

“That’s all true but that’s only the beginning. You know, a workforce that’s not fully up to speed and fully trained is bad for you, now is bad for me. It’s bad for anybody who’s addicted to smooth roads, smooth runways, affordable electricity, chewing & swallowing things, and indoor plumbing, right? We’ve all got skin in the game. So right now I think that we just have a disconnect in this country. Most people have no practical relationship with that part of the workforce that keeps the lights on, builds bridges and makes civilized life work.”

“So it’s because that disconnect that a lot of jobs are going uncelebrated, and a lot of companies are struggling to come up to speed in tech and in the skills area. So I’ve seen a lot of people do a lot of different things to try and close the gap. But I think most of them have missed the point because they’re starting us too far down the line chronologically. You have to start at the beginning, in the beginning is the definition of a good job. If we can’t agree on that, blue-collar & white-collar will always be apart, clean & dirty will always be apart, STEM & skill will always be apart. Those things aren’t opposites they are two sides of the same coin. That’s where we gotta get too.”


When we talk about a skills gap, what are some of the jobs that we’re specifically talking about?
“So in 2009, Dirty Jobs was at its peak. We’ve been on the air about five years, and the economy had obviously turned. So every day, headline news is all about how many jobs have vanished and how many people are out of work. On Dirty Jobs everywhere I went, all 50 states, I saw the same thing: help wanted signs. Right, so Plumbers, steam fitters, pipe fitters, welders, mechanics … You know all of those professions impacted my show and every employer I talked to told me the same exact thing. And I’m not exaggerating.”

“The single biggest challenge facing everybody I met was finding people who are willing to retool, retrain, learn a truly useful skill, and then work their butt off. I mean its old school work ethic, but that’s a big part of this conversation too. Show up early, stay late, and soft skills. Tuck your shirt in, take your hat off during your interview, right?  And look it’s not politically correct to say it but you gotta test clean, right? So those are all impacting the amount of available jobs that aren’t getting filled right now. It’s complicated, but again, I still think it starts with the definition of what is aspiration.”