By Kristen Bahler
January 25, 2019

Mike Rowe wants you to picture something.

So envision, if you will, a skilled tradesperson. A construction worker, maybe. Or the guy who comes to fix your dishwasher when it’s leaking dirty water and stinking to high heaven.

What does he look like, this blue collar worker you’ve fabricated? Is he smart and capable? Or hapless, and kind of simple-minded, like an extra in a sitcom?

“If you see a plumber on TV, he’s going to be 300 pounds with a giant butt crack,” Rowe says.

The former Dirty Jobs host has, not surprisingly, met a lot of plumbers in his day. “And none of them look like that,” he says. “They’re actually pretty fit, and pretty smart, and most of them are making six figures a year.”

There’s a larger point here.

The talent pool for skilled laborers is shrinking — a consequence of the growing mismatch between U.S. job seekers and the record number of open positions they need to fill.

This so-called “skills gap” spans industries: In a recent PWC survey of CEOs, the “availability of key skills” was listed as a “top threat” for companies globally. But as the demand for new infrastructure increases, misconceptions about the people who build and repair the places we live and work are draining a labor force we all depend on, Rowe says.

“We’ve marginalized an entire category of work,” he says. “And we just don’t appreciate the opportunities that are out there.”

Rowe has been making this argument for over a decade. As the face of Dirty Jobs, a Discovery Channel reality show (later rebranded by CNN as Somebody’s Gotta Do It), he chronicled the lives of blue collar workers throughout the country. During production, Rowe says he was struck by how many companies were struggling to find employees.

He launched mikeroweWORKS in 2008, a nonprofit organization that links students interested in learning a skilled trade with scholarships and job opportunities. But since then, the skills gap outlook has only gotten drearier. A scant 9% of high school students plan to pursue a career in the trades, according to a 2018 survey from Wolverine, a footwear company and mikeroweWORKs partner.

To blame, Rowe says, is a fundamental misunderstanding about what makes a job “good.”

Parents and educators, motivated to provide opportunities for young people, have long pushed college as the best path to a worthwhile career. Now student loan debt is at an all-time high, and early skills-based learning—once a staple in high school shop classes—is disappearing from public schools.

“Parents want something better for their kids than they had, but we don’t really know what ‘better’ means,” Rowe says. “Nobody has ever suffered from learning how to weld, learning how to run electric, how to lay pipe. But crushing debt and a lack of skill could derail your career before it gets started.”

He’s got a point. Skilled trade occupations don’t require expensive education — most workers learn their craft through trade schools and apprenticeships. When they enter the field, they take stable jobs (people need plumbers and electricians no matter what’s going on in the economy). And they’re not always confined to a lifetime of back-breaking work — like white collar positions, many skilled laborers work their way up to manager positions, and eventually own their own businesses.

They make good money, too.

The median pay for “plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters” is $52,590, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s 33% more than the median annual wage for all U.S. jobs ($37,690). Some plumbers, like those who work in big cities, make a lot more.

And that’s not even the best-paying trade job out there. Niche roles like power plant operator or elevator installer come with an average salary of $80,000 or more — and neither requires a college degree.

To get people into these jobs, and to fix the escalating burden of leaving them unfilled, Rowe says we need to get our priorities in order. Step one? Bring back shop class.

“What we affirmatively choose to expose our kids to is where the conversation starts,” he says. “To make these opportunities appealing, we need to celebrate them from the very beginning.”

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