Back when Mike Rowe was in high school, there was a poster in his guidance counselor’s office that showed a bright and happy college graduate holding a diploma juxtaposed next to a dirty, dimly lit, blue collar worker, with a message across the bottom, “Work Smart NOT Hard.”
The signals it sent were quite clear — it’s better to go to college than it is to work in a trade or manufacturing job.
But his experience on the massively popular Dirty Jobs TV show — which depicted Rowe partnering up with people who did dangerous disgusting jobs, like in a sewer or on a farm — has since made him realize just how damaging a poster like that was.
While he isn’t anti-college — Rowe himself has a degree — he does believe more people should be encouraged to do blue collar work, such as learning a trade or working in the manufacturing sector.
Rowe recently spoke about all this at the annual PowerPlex event in Atlanta. Plex sponsored my trip to their show, which highlighted its industry-leading manufacturing ERP software and the customers who have had success with it. I’ll be including more on that in an upcoming feature about Sanders and Morley Candy Makers and Hausbeck Pickles, both of which use Plex and rave about it.
But back to Rowe. These days, he runs a foundation called mikeroweWORKS, which is a “public charity that rewards people with a passion to get trained for skilled jobs that actually exist.”
“Today student loans eclipse $1 trillion,” Rowe writes on the foundation’s website. “There’s high unemployment among recent college graduates, and most graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. And we have a skills gap. At last count, 3 million jobs are currently available that either no one can do, or no one seems to want. How crazy is that? I think often about the people I met on Dirty Jobs. Most of them were tradesmen. Many were entrepreneurs and innovators. Some were millionaires. People are always surprised to hear that, because we no longer equate dirt with success. But we should.”
And he has a new poster for students. It’s an updated version of the poster that used to hang in his school. But this one shows a sad and dimly lit Mike Rowe holding a diploma next to a bright and happy manufacturing employee holding a laptop in a factory. And the message across the bottom reads, “Work Smart AND Hard.”
“I don’t know if changing one little word in one stupid slogan will reinvigorate the skilled trades. I just think it’s time for a new cliché,” he says.
And it’s a change in thinking about the type of work kids should pursue that really starts in high school.
“You’ve got to get parents to think differently,” Rowe says. “And you’ve got to get guidance counselors that promote one form of work over another to change. The way we think about work infects and informs the next generation.”
For its part Plex made a $25,000 donation to Rowe’s foundation after his speech, slated to be used “to provide scholarships to people getting trained for skilled jobs that are in high demand through a variety of programs, including the Work Ethic Scholarship Program.”
“Plex is excited to partner with the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and support Mike Rowe’s focus on building awareness around the exciting career opportunities in advanced manufacturing,” says Jason Blessing, Plex Systems CEO. “Closing the skills gap is critical to the future of manufacturing, and we’re proud to contribute to an organization that works tirelessly to make this effort a reality.”
One thing’s for sure: If there’s anything Rowe can handle, it’s working tirelessly.