Mike Rowe was headed to the airport after filming an episode of Dirty Jobs when he saw a crew of roofers atop a church on an “impossibly” hot day in Pasadena.
In a split second, he decided to skip his flight home and see what kind of people were hot-tarring a tall building in the California sun. It was most definitely a “dirty job” — one Rowe thought viewers might want to hear more about.
And that’s how the “Hot Tar Roofer” episode of the show came to be. Twelve hours later, a new episode wrapped and a bunch of roofers could tell their families they were going to be on TV. So it was with many episodes of the show that put Rowe on the map, showing and telling people they don’t need a master’s degree and a corner office to make a living.
I grew up with a tar kettle in my backyard, grass splotched with drips of tar and my Dad’s construction boots propped outside the front door and flecked with tar, mud, paint, and whatever else a roofer comes in contact with.
My Dad’s roofing business was a “dirty job” — and even though he owned it, he did the dirty work himself. There were hammers to skip over in the yard by the swing set, nails rolling around on the garage floor, stacks of sheet metal propped against the outside of our house, and the infamous pieces of fiberglass I slid down, realizing only later what a very itchy mistake that was.
Interviewing Rowe, who has made a brand name for himself beyond Dirty Jobs, was a real privilege because he preaches a message that gave my family and me a wonderful life filled with opportunity.
It’s bipartisan and practical — and it’s this: Sometimes the thing you’re passionate about isn’t the thing that you’re good at. You might be good at plumbing — and it’s possible to thrive, find passion, and make a living doing that if you allow yourself to be open to it.
Rowe admonishes those who encourage graduating high-school students to “live your dreams” when that encouragement comes from a person who knows nothing about the person to whom he is speaking.
“I think that if you’re looking to give the best possible advice to someone . . . you need to know who that person is, what makes them tick, what their strengths and weaknesses are,” says Rowe in an interview with National Review.
He recently responded to a quip from Bernie Sanders:
At the end of the day, providing a path to go to college is a helluva lot cheaper than putting people on a path to jail.
— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 13, 2015
Rowe is famous for saying that traditional college is not the answer for everyone, and he was incredulous that Sanders would “imply that a path to prison is the most likely alternative to a path to college.”
But that’s politics, he says.
“That’s my problem with Bernie — with anyone who talks grandly about college — you can’t say anything that applies to everyone equally, and yet they try to,” said Rowe. “If you’re trying to get elected . . . your message is going to have to be one-size-fits-all by design — and that’s how politics makes the problem worse.”
And what about “free college” — the concept Sanders and other progressives are so fond of? The idea doesn’t sit well with Rowe, who says, “I was never able to reconcile the idea that the more important the thing is, the freer it should be.”
When Sanders and others discuss the importance of education, Rowe said they are unfairly “cherry-picking one form of education as being the best path for most people.”
“Our elected officials have glommed onto college as the golden ticket, the wish fulfillment, the human right — and therefore, the thing that ought to be made free and available to all,” said Rowe. “If you’re going to say education should be made free, then own it across the board — talk to me about options of trade school, apprenticeships, fellowships, and training programs.”
He’s often misinterpreted as meaning he doesn’t believe in education, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Rowe says he believes that without an education, “there’s absolutely no hope of success,” but education doesn’t reside just inside a traditional college system.
Rowe says he believes that without an education, ‘there’s absolutely no hope of success,’ but education doesn’t reside just inside a traditional college system.
And Rowe has the evidence to prove he’s right. Through his Mike Rowe Foundation, he’s been able to provide individuals with the training they need for skilled-trade jobs — and he gets letters every day thanking him for his message and encouragement.
“Just yesterday, a guy came by [on his Facebook wall] and said ‘I’m 30 and I’ve been miserable most of my working career. . . . Then I saw an episode of Dirty Jobs where you were cleaning chimneys, so I went to the National Chimney Sweep Cleaning Institute and got certified and now I’ve got two employees, a van and my own business,’” Rowe recounted.
Living your career dreams, if you have the talent to fuel them, isn’t a bad thing, but job choices aren’t necessarily what makes someone happy and fulfilled. That’s why, Rowe said, “the world is full of very happy septic-tank cleaners and miserable investment bankers.”
“There’s nothing magical about job satisfaction. . . . It has so much less to do with the job and everything to do with the person,” he said.
Therefore, he doesn’t recommend that unhappy investment bankers quit their jobs and become chimney sweeps. However, someone coming out of high school or college — or locked into a dead-end job — shouldn’t see a skilled trade as something beneath his intelligence or status. Many of these industries are hiring like crazy, and it’s not difficult to get the training necessary to obtain one.
Though Rowe does receive criticism for not promoting traditional college as the be-all and end-all, it’s clear that his message resonates across the aisle.
“Every time I go to D.C. to talk about the skills gap . . . I will get calls from aides and senators from both sides and they all say the same thing: ‘Boy, your message is so on point with us — you’re really our people!’ — and I’ll say, ‘Do you know who I just got off the phone with?’” said Rowe.
That’s probably why Rowe has over 3.3 million fans on his Facebook page, where he engages in substantive conversations with them on a daily basis. It’s there that he sees his message come full circle — and finds the encouragement to continue helping people fulfill the real dream of gainful employment doing something that actually needs to be done.
These days Rowe is continuing his work with the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and his CNN show Somebody’s Gotta Do It, and he recently started a podcast called The Way I Heard It, a less-than-10-minute, Paul Harveyesque show revealing fascinating facts about well-known people in history. You may also want to check out his message for the class of 2016 from Prager U.
It’s clear he won’t be fading from the spotlight anytime soon. As long as his advice resonates with Americans, he seems happy to fill an inspiration gap that for too long was missing a messenger.