Mike Rowe Testifying Before Senate Committee

“The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”
Mike Rowe

Working is part of our genetic make-up in the United States. One of my personal goals producing for this program is to present the many forms of grittier intelligence that exist in the world — reminding myself and our audiences of the intellectual integrity and the nose-to-the-grindstone beauty of people in this land I call home.

The value of work and how we work and how we become civic beings is embedded in this concept of everyday living. I ask myself, “Why did so many people love the story about the oldest living man from Montana who just recently died?” I don’t think that it was just about longevity, but that he was a railroad man who had practical advice and obvious wisdom. He distilled the complexity of life into practical advice that I believe he formed by working the lines and the farms. I think all of us long to know more about people like that, the quiescent majority.

Reading the following testimony from Mike Rowe, the creator and host of Dirty Jobs, before the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation has reignited my urgency to find more of these voices in the months to come. Here’s his speech in its entirety; it’s well worth the time:

“Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Hutchison and members of this committee, my name is Mike Rowe, and I want to thank you all very much for the opportunity to testify before you today.

I’m here today because of my grandfather.

His name was Carl Knobel, and he made his living in Baltimore as a master electrician. He was also a plumber, a mechanic, a mason, and a carpenter. Everyone knew him as a jack-of-all-trades. I knew him as a magician.

For most of his life, my grandfather woke up clean and came home dirty. In between, he accomplished things that were nothing short of miraculous. Some days he might re-shingle a roof. Or rebuild a motor. Or maybe run electricity out to our barn. He helped build the church I went to as a kid, and the farmhouse my brothers and I grew up in. He could fix or build anything, but to my knowledge he never once read the directions. He just knew how stuff worked.

I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.

Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.

By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.

Thirty years later in San Francisco when my toilet blew up again. This time, I didn’t participate in the repair process. I just called my landlord, left a check on the kitchen counter, and went to work. When I got home, the mess was cleaned up and the problem was solved. As for the actual plumber who did the work, I never even met him.

It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.

At this point my grandfather was well into his 80s, and after a long visit with him one weekend, I decided to do a TV show in his honor. Today, Dirty Jobs is still on the air, and I am here before this committee, hoping to say something useful. So, here it is.

I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.

Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.

Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn’t a lack of funds. It wasn’t a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.

In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn’t be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber — if you can find one — is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.

I came here today because guys like my grandfather are no less important to civilized life than they were 50 years ago. Maybe they’re in short supply because we don’t acknowledge them they way we used to. We leave our check on the kitchen counter, and hope the work gets done. That needs to change.

My written testimony includes the details of several initiatives designed to close the skills gap, all of which I’ve had the privilege to participate in. Go Build Alabama, I Make America, and my own modest efforts through Dirty Jobs and mikeroweWORKS. I’m especially proud to announce “Discover Your Skills,” a broad-based initiative from Discovery Communications that I believe can change perceptions in a meaningful way.

I encourage you to support these efforts, because closing the skills gap doesn’t just benefit future tradesmen and the companies desperate to hire them. It benefits people like me, and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing.

The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”

If you have suggestions for voices that could fill this gap in our coverage, please drop me a line in the comments or by sending an email to tgilliss@onbeing.org.

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I think I shall send this to Governor Malloy(CT) whom wishes to shut down the technical schools in Connecticut.

As encouragment or "stop wait a minute!"  Does all the power go to the top or can't burocrats be voted OUT.

 We all can't be doctors,lawyers, models, and sports moguls.It's great to have goals but  once again we seek the flash while shooting for the cheapest way to get the rest done. There is integrity  and honor in a job well done. And we all have the same job -from the doctor to the janitor- it's a job that needs to be done. We are in the maintenance era of our country, we have achieved so much and now need to honor the work of those achievements -by our families who came before us - and maintain the beauty of who we are. Recognize all around you who participate in our world as a very necessary and integral part of your world, our world -the world.

Before I moved back to Iowa I had a little condo in a very high scale building on the lake in Chicago. The beautiful building was 35 years old, and the unit was a mess when I bought it.  I slowly fixed it up and in the process learned that the building had a hidden maze of "fixes" made up of scavaged parts by 4 old men who literally kept the whole thing going.  They were all in their last year before retirement.  I sold the unit with the realization that this is probably true of most everything.  It was definitely time to return home to Iowa where people still know how to get things done. 

Tom Paxton's early song "I'm the man that built the bridges" could be Mike's suggested national program's theme song.  Studs Turkel's "Working" should be weaved into its script.
Thanks, Trent, for posting Rowe's testimony and words.

I think this needs to be shared with Michigan's legislators, board of education, and governor, whose Michigan Merit Curriculum <http: 0,1607,7-140-38924---,00.html="" mde="" www.michigan.gov=""> has had the unintended consequence of reducing enrollments in Career and Tech Ed. classes and programs in high schools, and has led to the narrowing of our conceptualization of what it means to be well-prepared for a sustainable career in Michigan, one of the states hardest hit by the economic downturn. 

I'm also sharing this with one of my favorite CTE teachers in Michigan, Mr. Rogers, whose instructional videos are featured at <http: novidesign="" user="" www.youtube.com=""> and whose blog is at <http: misterrogersrants.blogspot.com="">

As a special educator, and as a learning disabilities consultant, I am a big fan of career and technical education, and am one of the first to say that CTE saves lives.

Kathleen Kosobud

I work in public schools and I see so many decent kids develop poor attitudes and give up on academics, leading to the behavior problems that drives talented teachers out of the profession. These kids are not unintelligent, just smart in other ways. But they are forced into academics that are more tedious, and much more irrelevant, than when I went to the very same school not that long ago. Soon my state will require Algebra 2 to graduate. Really? I was in the honor society and I found Algebra 2 difficult. I haven't used it since, nor do I remember how to do it. Rethink work. Redefine smart. Broaden the definition of education.

 I think it would be really interesting to talk to people like the "Car Talk Guys" and other very well educated people who decide to not be "knowledge workers," but rather people who actually create with their hands.   My husband makes handcrafted furniture in the middle of the city with minimal use of power tools.  People then ask why his truly functional art costs more than what they'd pay at Ikea.  It's sad that our culture has lost respect for the wisdom and craft of artisans.

I disagree that the Magliozzi brothers aren't "knowledge workers." Sure, they run a garage, but you know them as the Car Talk Guys - i.e., for their radio show.

This discussion is one of paramount importance today--we have stratified into the "knowledge worker" class and a class of low-paid, low skilled service workers, with relatively little work for those skilled in machine operations, the making and  repairing of our material artifacts, or any brain/hand engaging work for those whose gifts are in the making of complex material artifacts.  We have outsourced our needs for these things to other country and the social ecology of our culture is the worse for it.  

Matthew Crawford, a professional philosopher and professional motorcycle mechanic has written the best analysis of this in "Shop class as soulcraft"  I highly recommend it if you are interested in the spiritual/philosophical underpinnings of how the mind and the physical products of the mind (a chair, a boat, a Triumph motorcycle) are a complex interplay of great intellectual challenge and merit.  

I taught jr. high English for only 4 years, but I learned that intelligence could not be equated with essay-writing and aceing the test. I observed young'uns whose intelligence flowed straight from brain to fingertips, few words required. And I was saddened by how the system ignored, even squelched the natural curiosity of such students.  That curiosity is, in fact, the very bedrock of an educable mind, and a sure sign of intelligence.  Such students are often very impatient with our teach-to-the-bottom educational system.

When we bought our neighborhood hardware store, it was those "handy" kids we sought to hire, for their fascination with how things work is a huge asset and guarantor or their success in helping customers solve practical problems. Worst of all is to be a handy kid in a wealthy home where any college is affordable, and no other option considered. Such kids end up drinking their way through college and maybe even several more years of life before allowing themselves the dignity of pursuing their natural interests in carpentry, mechanics, electronics, farming, design....  We practice such educational snobbery and elitism that kids feel there's no reason to apply themselves in high school if they don't see college in their future.  Little do they realize how they will need all the verbal and mathematical skills they can master just to protect themselves and their assets as they navigate this global life..It's late... I ramble. You hit a flashpoint! We as a nation cannot afford to continue with our shallow and simplistic thinking about public education.

I was listening to a radio show the other day about how young adults going to college are leaving with tons of debt, but no jobs. One of the speakers expressed the same attitude as the above article that as a nation we need to find value in work again. Everyone wants to go to college because that has been the mantra from all parts of society for a long time. Statistics tell us that the more education you have the more money you'll get and nobody wants less, yet this new statistic tells us that less than half actually find work in their field of study. One young lady on the show was said to have $400,000 in debt and not yet finished with her veterinarian degree (Yikes!). I believe that the problem of a devalued appreciation of the working class comes from multiply sources, but I think all roads that lead to this devaluation leads to this group of people who champion "centralized world markets." From their philosophy has come the idea of let your money work for you, instead of you actually working, of corning the market to become the new "Too big to fail" corporation, of profits over community, and the list goes on. This idea can not be fully expressed here, due to the amount space allowed, but the idea of man living simply, working within his ability and living a life based upon G-d, family, and community has been usurped by those who have replaced it with professionalism, corporations, intelligentsia, and entertainment. 

We have been blinded by the "college syndrome" : i.e.: in order to succeed you need a college education!  All of this hype is a load of bull----, promulgated by the money pits known as colleges and/or universities.  Rather than having qualified plumbers, electricians, chefs and the like, the educators would like us to accept BA/BS, MA, or PhD candidates to sell us the coffee at McD, or the 2x4 at Lowe's.  Talk about overqualified?  Then when we need a carpenter or plumber, one is not around since the politicians cut funding for the alternate or technical studies programs throughout the U.S. but kept the funding open for the major (sports) colleges/universities.  Toilet backing up?  Roof collapsing?  Shock from wall switch?  Call a college/university "hot line" and they will tell you when the next sports extravaganza is, or Sorority/Fraternity bash, but no help in living the good life.    

For most of his life my husband "woke up clean and came home dirty". He worked in 'manufacturing'...56 hours a week...
it was the 'overtime' hours that allowed us to save money for retirement. We've been married for almost 48 years.
He retired at the age of 68. He is the love of my life, the smartest man I know.
Thank you for the opportunity to pay tribute, here, to a real 'working man'. He is one of the unsung heroes you speak of.

I did both kinds of work. I was an aircraft mechanic and I did plumbing and electrician work for an involuntary slum lord, but jobs that value these experiences are scarce and there are hundreds of times as many mechanics applying for them as there are openings everywhere I see. I also supported myself as a professional student and now have a PhD. I do adjunct faculty work which is as difficult as mechanical work. The pay for all but the very few who get tenured is typically less than 20K while the football coach gets several hundred times that pay. What we have is a loss of values when the authority of skilled or educated people is treated like trash in the economy with a culture that values the unearned stardom of a pop singers who never did the years of hard work it takes to become a real musician.

I have been an instructor for Industrial Arts at the secondary education level, retired, taught at and still am at the college level in machining and quality control, have placed students with employers for internship programs and provided training to employers in several areas of employment needs. Mike Rowe is dead on. The greatest area of change is technolgy and the need for advanced training is required in order to stay competitive.

Thank you. Bless you. Why is it, what seems so obvious to those of us in the real world, is a complete mystery to politicians? Everyone is disconnected, including the "leaders".
I teach science and daily wish we had our voc ed back in the school. How are electricity and plumbing, not part of a technology and engineering curriculum? Because the College Board profits massively when every student is "going to college." Follow the money and let public schools get back to teaching skills needed by the community.
A science teacher.

Mike Rowe is so right. We have tricked ourselves into believing that these trades jobs aren't prestigious. Who wants to "leave home clean and come home dirty" when you can push paper or be a "white collar" worker? Well, we need those too, but when your toilet backs up are you going to call a bureaucrat?

I highly recommend this book that hits on a lot of the same themes: Shopclass as Soulcraft. http://www.amazon.com/Shop-Class-Soulcraft-Inquiry-Value/dp/0143117467

This speech is surprising, I really enjoyed to read it, thank you. I read comments and it's true, some kids give up, but it's just because they are in the wrong way, it can be useless to tell that, but you know, everybody need to find their own way, to be aware and productive. Some kids have to reach their bachelor-degree of High School and after choose a way that they like in University, but they don't have to give up before that.

Very Very creative and appreciable article. I really felt proud in reading your article and about the growth. I heard Mike Row and was speechless because he puts an magnanimous effect on the listeners. Work must be valued as work is god. Each and every work should be valued because there is no big and small in it. For every work you get paid. In any business intelligence should be respected and welcomed but not ignoring the work.