Mike Rowe, host of TV's 'Dirty Jobs,' tackles toughest task

Discovery Channel personality is champion of blue-collar workers

  • Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery Channel
Mike Rowe, host of "Dirty Jobs" on the Discovery… (Photo courtesy of Discovery…)
January 18, 2011|By Lorraine Mirabella, The Baltimore Sun

As host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs," Mike Rowe has taken work as a sewer inspector, pig farmer, mud bath mixer, maggot farmer, olive oil presser, and pigeon poop cleaner-upper.

But all that's easy money compared to what could be his biggest challenge yet — convincing America that blue-collar work, especially the kind that may turn a stomach or break a back, is noble and necessary.

The TV personality and Baltimore native has extended his "dirty boy" brand into a website, MikeRoweWorks.com, to highlight the decline in the trades and boost enrollment in trade schools. And he's leveraging partnerships with Ford Motor Co., Caterpillar Inc. and others that allow him to make a living as a spokesman while focusing on his mission to change perceptions of blue-collar jobs.

"If people are willing to talk about a definition of what a good job is, we might be able to address some of these issues that really plague skilled labor today, such as a skills gap," Rowe said, calling that gap "one of the great looming disasters."

"It has become a topic of conversation as the economy has collapsed and people were laid off: Is a dirty job a bad job?"

According to a Manpower Inc. survey , U.S. employers rank the skilled trades as their No. 1 hiring challenge. These are electricians, bricklayers, plumbers, and welders and sectors that have been hiring in a tough job market. For instance, the mining industry added more than 90,000 jobs in the past year, and machine shops more than 25,000.

Rowe, 48, views himself as an advocate for the jobs depicted on his reality TV show that captures people's working lives. He's quick to say he has no expertise other than acting as an apprentice on hundreds of jobs since 2005.

Week after week, viewers have watched him play the good-natured guinea pig, toiling on farms, ranches, roads, bridges, boats and factories, and as he injects his own style of self-deprecating humor, with quips like: "I'm not quitting. I'm just leaving and never coming back."

The show, which airs Tuesdays at 9 p.m., has stayed on the air for seven seasons in the same unscripted format, Rowe says, because it tackles an increasingly topical theme — redefining a "good job."

"When you portray people doing work that's dirty or difficult or dangerous, but you don't show them being miserable and completely wrapped in drudgery, you send an interesting message to millions of people," Rowe said.

According to MikeRoweWorks.com, society believes a "good job" requires a four-year degree — and such thinking is "bunk." Meanwhile, the nation faces a shortage of skilled labor but also crumbling infrastructure and high unemployment, the site says.

The website, which pulls together information on available jobs, skilled trades training and economic news, started as a way to give something back to the industries that allowed "Dirty Jobs" to prosper, said Rowe, the show's creator and executive producer.

Rowe said he thought about building a trades resource center online, then began getting suggestions from fans for links to include on apprenticeships, scholarships and education. The site has evolved into a public relations campaign for skilled labor and hard work.

Rowe has become an in-demand spokesman. He works in that capacity for the Association of Equipment Manufacturers' "I Make America" effort, which promotes domestic manufacturing jobs and infrastructure investment, and for Alabama's Go Build Alabama campaign to highlight a shortage in skilled trades. Rowe also has appeared in TV commercials for Ford trucks and on the Caterpillar company website.

"Mike is totally committed to the American working man and woman," said Anne Forristall Luke, a spokeswoman for the equipment manufacturers trade association, which includes members such as Caterpillar. "Mike's visibility helps to bring attention to these important issues. More important, he means these things he says. It comes across in the stories he tells about his own life and the people he's met."

Rowe, who grew up in Overlea in Baltimore County and whose parents live in Perry Hall, says he was inspired by his late grandfather, a master electrician who could fix anything and was viewed as a neighborhood hero in his day. Today, Rowe laments, "He'd be invisible."

Workers in the trades welcome Rowe's message. As more and more of those workers near retirement, younger people are not being encouraged to fill their jobs, Luke said. And employers such as manufacturers are struggling to find qualified and properly trained workers, according to Gene L. Burner, president of the Manufacturers' Alliance of Maryland.

"If someone is looking to relocate or building a new manufacturing plant, the first thing they are concerned about is what is the quality of the work force," Burner said.

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