"IF WE ARE lending money that ostensibly we don't have to kids who have no hope of making it back in order to train them for jobs that clearly don't exist, I might suggest that we've gone around the bend a little bit," says TV personality Mike Rowe. Rowe is the longtime host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, where he takes on gigs straight out of Bob Dylan songs: working on fishing boats, sewer systems, oil derricks, slaughterhouses, and more.
"There is a real disconnect in the way that we educate vis-a-vis the opportunities that are available," he adds. "You have right now about 3 million jobs in transportation, commerce, and trades that can't be filled."
Rowe, who once sang for the Baltimore Opera and worked as an on-air pitchman for the shopping channel QVC, worries that traditional K-12 education demonizes good-paying, in-demand blue-collar fields while insisting instead that everyone get a college degree. Between the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and Profoundly Disconnected, a venture between Rowe and the heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, the TV personality is hoping both to help people find new careers and to publicize what he calls "the diploma dilemma."
Rowe recently sat down with reason's Nick Gillespie to discuss the problem with taxpayer-supported college loans, the importance of a work ethic, the burden of regulatory compliance, and his own unusual work history. For video of the interview, go to reason.com or scan the QR code on the previous page.
reason: We're doing everything we can to push every kid to go to a four-year college. What's wrong there?
Mike Rowe: It's not working. You've got a trillion dollars in debt on the student loan side. We have a skills gap.
reason: What do you mean by skills gap?
Rowe: You have right now about 3 million jobs in transportation, commerce, and trades that can't be filled.
reason: This is anything from carpentry to being an electrician, a plumber, construction--
Rowe: Heating, electric, truck drivers. Welders is a big one. There's a long list of jobs that parents typically don't sit down and say to their kids: "Look, if all goes well, this is what you're going to do."
Reason: But these are actually jobs that are not only available but pay well.
Rowe: Yes, is the short answer. But of course, "pay well" is kind of relative. What they are mostly, in my opinion, are opportunities. A good welder right now can pretty much write his or her own ticket. Companies like Caterpillar, Bechtel, you can go down the list: They have had open shortages for decades. I talked to a kid the other day up in Butler, North Dakota. So it's Butler, right? It's cold. But he works on heavy equipment up there, makes over $100 an hour, works when he wants, paid for his house in cash, raising a family, no debt. People don't tell his story.
reason: Instead, we're telling everybody you've got to get that sheepskin, you've got to get the college B.A., otherwise you're not going to be happy or have any opportunity.
Rowe: It feels that way to me. That was my experience in high school, and I still hear the same platitudes today.
reason: You have a great story about your high school guidance counselor.
Rowe: Mr. Dunbar, yeah. He called me down, as millions of kids have been called down, to talk about my future. He was looking at some test scores and said, "You're not an idiot. You've got a shot at James Madison University in Maryland, maybe some other schools." I said, "I don't have any money, but more importantly, I don't have any idea what I want to do. So, while I figure that out, I thought I'd go to a community college." At which point he says, "Well, that's way below your potential," and pointed to the poster that said "Work Smart, Not Hard."
The thing about the poster wasn't just the bromide at the bottom. It was the image. On the left-hand side you've got a college graduate, recently matriculated, cap and gown, sun setting behind him, looking like he owns the world and the future. Next to him is a mechanic, holding a wrench, covered in grease or something worse, looking at the ground like he won the vocational consolation prize of all time. That was a very specific PR campaign for college, higher education.
reason: This was the late '70s?
Row: 1979, yeah. All PR campaigns always go too far, and they always, it seems, promote the thing they want to focus on at the expense of something else. Now, it's kind of egregious in education, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be shocking, because the best way to sell a truck is to talk about how lousy the competitor is. The best way to get elected is to talk about how creepy your opponent is. The best way to really promote college hard is to talk about how subordinate all the other opportunities are.
Now, as part of our ongoing campaign for the trades, we sell posters that say "Work Smart and Hard." I now play the role of the graduate standing there holding my degree looking somewhat confused by the...