When Dirty Jobs star and Ford Motor Co. pitchman Mike Rowe blundered into a Mitt Romney rally in Ohio the other day, believing, he says, that it would be a roundtable discussion and not a partisan event with 2,000 supporters, here’s what he didn’t say:
“If we’re not still crapping our pants when we flick a switch and the light comes on, we’re in trouble. We should be fainting with wonder when we flush the toilet and it works. We should be like: You know what? That’s kind of a miracle.”
A bit rude for a polite crowd of Republicans. But Rowe’s point, which he makes from his apartment in San Francisco, interrupted occasionally by the roar of fighter jets flying between his windows and Alcatraz (“Goddamn that’s loud!” he shouts), is that hundreds of thousands of blue-collar positions are going unfilled—simply because our society disses the very same dirty jobs that keep civilization humming along. There’s a shortage of welders, plumbers and other tradesmen during a period of high unemployment because such grubby pastimes are not seen as “aspirational.” Thus Rowe trekked to the Buckeye State to talk about the “skills gap.”
Yet it’s also kind of a miracle that it didn’t occur to Rowe—who, at 50, is savvy and successful—that his appearance alongside the Republican presidential nominee, onstage at a spring wire factory in a battleground state less than two months before the election, would be widely viewed as an endorsement.
It wasn’t, he insists.
“It was awkward,” Rowe says, recounting his reaction to the “endorsement” headlines that greeted him when he got off the plane in Cleveland. “I truly was anticipating a roundtable. In my head, I saw it as Charlie Rose, right? And I’m going to sit down with a bunch of enlightened visionaries and local business leaders, and have a serious conversation…What do they say—all failures are communication failures? I don’t know who said what to whom, I just know that once the ‘endorsement’ word popped up, you can’t really get the shit back in the goose.”
The dulcet-toned Rowe, a onetime opera singer, notes that besides his crazed schedule at Discovery Channel, where he not only hosts Dirty Jobs but also narrates American Chopper, Deadliest Catch, and a few other shows, “I run a completely nonpartisan, completely apolitical foundation.” Dubbed mikeroweWORKS, the foundation’s mission is “to support the trades … and challenge the prevailing definition of a ‘good job.’” It will soon announce a $250,000 scholarship fund for vocational and technical training in specific trades where a labor shortage exists.
“I don’t need to be out there on one side or the other,” Rowe says. “It’s such a hyper-real time that we’re in right now, and there’s such an anxiousness to put people in one camp or the other that it’s really impossible to talk objectively about an issue without being defined in large capital letters. I get why it happens. I just didn’t see it until it was right in front of me.”
So, as the Ohio rally was about to begin, Rowe pulled Romney aside and explained his embarrassing dilemma. “And he said, ‘You know what? Trust me, I’ll clear it up as best I can.’ And he did.” Never mind the optics; Romney told his supporters that “my friend Mike Rowe’s” participation was strictly nonpartisan.
Yet Rowe, a registered independent, expects that he’ll be voting for the former Massachusetts governor—not that his ballot will prevent President Obama from carrying the blue state of California or deny his congresswoman, San Francisco’s Nancy Pelosi, a 14th term in the House. “I’ve never met the woman,” Rowe says, “but from what I’ve read, my guess is we would disagree on a number of seminal points.”
Ironically, Rowe had been trying to get the attention of the Democrats since 2009, writing to President Obama, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and other officials offering to brief them on the urgent need for a national crusade to elevate the trades. Except for an invitation to testify last year before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, he was virtually ignored. “Baffling,” Rowe says. And Romney answered his letter.
“I’m a bit of a prostitute in that regard,” he says. “I’m really just looking for a platform. I can’t call the White House and demand a meeting. It feels weird to even bitch about it, because the last thing I want to come across like is some scorned B-list celebrity who didn’t get his mail answered by the Leader of the Free World.”
Like many observers, especially Republicans, Rowe was puzzled by the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ September job report figures that showed unemployment declining to 7.8 percent. “I won’t say ‘skeptical’ since it makes me sound like a Luddite,” says Rowe, who rejects the conspiracy theories advanced by the likes of retired General Electric CEO Jack Welch. “From what I’ve read, there are a dramatically lesser number of people in the work force today than there were four years ago. That seems kind of fascinating. If you’re no longer in the work force, then the percentage doesn’t apply to you. And so I’ve heard on every channel but MSNBC, just flicking around here, that if you have the same number of people as were looking for work four years ago, the unemployment rate would be 10.7 or closer to 11 … Clearly 7.8 is a fact. But the other numbers seem to be factual as well.”
Rowe says the skills gap is a symptom of a larger problem—that parents no longer communicate to their kids that dirty jobs are worth having. American society celebrates wealthy television personalities like Rowe, not trash collectors and road-kill removers. For the children of the baby-boom generation, Rowe argues, working up a sweat on a shovel-ready project seems less honorable than going into the rock-star business.
“Who could blame them?” Rowe says. “American Idol is the number one show in the history of television…And from the very earliest moments, when kids and their parents start talking about ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’—you don’t hear ‘fireman’ and ‘astronaut’ anymore. You hear: ‘That American Idol thing looks pretty good. I think I’ll try that.’ ”
Rowe hopes Thursday night’s vice presidential debate, as well as the two subsequent face-offs between the presidential candidates, somehow address the root cause of the symptoms—“the feeling that there’s a disconnect within the work force,” he says, meaning society’s separation from the dirty jobs that make 21st century life possible. “Watching the debates and listening to most of the conversation, even when I sit down at the beginning, I always feel like I’m hearing the middle of a conversation. Start at the beginning.”
Rowe exhorts the candidates: “If you guys start with an honest conversation about how to reconnect the rest of the country with that part of the workforce, I think it’d be useful. And maybe these guys can start to talk about how they are addicted, like I am, to paved roads, smooth runways, heating, air conditioning, hot and cold running water, cheap electricity, affordable food and, most of all, indoor plumbing. It isn’t a question of hey, is it a good job or not? It’s a question of national security. So the best way to close the skills gap in my humble opinion is to foster that sense of appreciation and reconnect with the fact that civilized life is being made possible by the same people from whom we have effectively disconnected ourselves.”