Dirty jobs need doing

Mike Rowe, best known as the host of the very entertaining Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Channel, recently wrote an open letter to Mitt Romney, in which he expressed his unified field theory of economic malaise: “our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce.”

“We are no longer impressed with cheap electricity, paved roads, and indoor plumbing,” Rowe continued.  “We take our infrastructure for granted, and the people who build it.”  He personally takes none of these things for granted, because he does them on his show, taking on a couple of different “dirty jobs” every episode.  Some of them involve geysers of manure, piles of animal intestines, or tidal waves of raw sewage.  The can-do acceptance of these hazards by the hard-working folks who handle those jobs every day is a big attraction of the show.

Rowe is an advocate of developing our pool of skilled labor, which would be a very significant change of focus from the current obsession with increasingly expensive college degrees.  “Even as unemployment remains sky high, a whole category of vital occupations has fallen out of favor, and companies struggle to find workers with the necessary skills,” he wrote.  “The causes seem clear. We have embraced a ridiculously narrow view of education. Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed ‘alternative.’ Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as ‘vocational consolation prizes,’ and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to ‘create’ over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing.”

Rowe added with his trademark wry humor, “I always thought there something ill-fated about the promise of three million ‘shovel ready jobs’ made to a society that no longer encourages people to pick up a shovel.”  Actually, I’m not sure we even encourage kids to make shovels any more.  We tell them to design websites where shovels can be sold.

Part of Rowe’s proposed solution involves encouraging young people to pursue careers in the skilled trades, for which purpose he created a website,, that “has since evolved into a non-profit foundation – a kind of P.R. campaign for hard work and skilled labor.”  He’s testified before Congress on the subject, and helped Alabama and Georgia launch recruitment campaigns for trade work.  His purpose in writing Romney was to offer his help in starting “a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce,” should Romney win the White House in November.  Rowe is nonpartisan about this – he made the same offer to Barack Obama in 2008, but says he never heard back.

Rowe’s proposition is intriguing because it runs contrary to the conventional political understanding of “job training” or what constitutes a “good job.”  Jobs are things that need doing.  Someone thinks they can make money by hiring you to do them, or you believe you can earn a living by hiring yourself out.  Jobs are not a commodity manufactured by government, and their value is not set by fiat.  I spent many years working with contractors myself, and heard many tales of their difficulty in filling even entry-level jobs, during the toughest economic times.  Tools and training would be provided, a good training wage was offered, and a valuable skill would be learned… but it was hard to find applicants who could pass the drug test, or were prepared to show up on time and put in a full day’s work.

A world divided between Morlocks and Eloi is not sustainable.  Neither is one in which the honor of handling a dirty job is degraded.  Hopefully Mike Rowe is cheered by the popularity of his own show, and many others that showcase people plying their trades across rough seas and ice roads… as well as blue-collar entrepreneurs buying up storage lockers and running pawn shops.  Hard, risky, dirty work has always been necessary.  Our society profits by making it interesting.