Mike Rowe on Trade Labor

Mike Rowe of Dis­cov­ery Chan­nel’s Dirty Jobs tes­ti­fied before the U.S. Sen­ate Com­mit­tee on Com­merce, Sci­ence and Trans­porta­tion this past Wednes­day. The entire writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ny is worth read­ing. I can guar­an­tee you that it con­tains the most heart-warm­ing sto­ry of plumb­ing repair you’ll read all day.

I com­plete­ly agree with every­thing he says. Even in a bleak econ­o­my with high unem­ploy­ment rates, our coun­try faces a short­age of skilled labor­ers (which actu­al­ly start­ed long before the econ­o­my tanked and cer­tain­ly did­n’t help pre­vent it). Rowe:

In gen­er­al, we’re sur­prised that high unem­ploy­ment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor short­age. We should­n’t be. We’ve pret­ty much guar­an­teed it.

In high schools, the voca­tion­al arts have all but van­ished. We’ve ele­vat­ed the impor­tance of “high­er edu­ca­tion” to such a lofty perch that all oth­er forms of knowl­edge are now labeled “alter­na­tive.” Mil­lions of par­ents and kids see appren­tice­ships and on-the-job-train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties as “voca­tion­al con­so­la­tion prizes,” best suit­ed for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about mil­lions of “shov­el ready” jobs for a soci­ety that does­n’t encour­age peo­ple to pick up a shovel.

We real­ly need to re-ori­ent our notion of suc­cess away from how much we have, how much we make, or how lit­tle we have to work for it. The sub­text to the ques­tion So, what do you do? should be what do you do to help soci­ety?. Labor isn’t some­thing to be ashamed of as a soci­ety nor is some­thing we should con­sid­ered rel­e­gat­ed to those less wor­thy. The peo­ple who con­struct and repair our homes, our places of work, and our infra­struc­ture the inter­face between life and civ­i­liza­tion. It’s about time we start­ed tak­ing a lot more pride — as a soci­ety or coun­try — in the class of pro­fes­sions that make it happen.

Per­haps this all sounds a bit hyp­o­crit­i­cal com­ing from a col­lege edu­cat­ed guy and that’s fair enough. How­ev­er, I do what I do because I love it. I’ve always been fas­ci­nat­ed by build­ing things and how things sim­ply go togeth­er. So, as a prod­uct of my envi­ron­ment, I became an engi­neer and now a writer (about engi­neer­ing soft­ware). But I still val­ue every moment that I get to use my hands and some tools to make or fix some­thing. As Rowe describes, those are some of the best mem­o­ries I have and I know that I learn a lot when doing those projects. I also have learned to have a great deal of respect for those who do it for a living.

An anal­o­gy of where we — as a soci­ety — seem to val­ue trade labor: the phrase chef to the stars seems like a rea­son­able (if not pre­ten­tious) thing to put on one’s busi­ness card or web site. How­ev­er, elec­tri­cian to the stars seems like a joke punch­line (or pos­si­bly a new real­i­ty series on TLC, which I’d argue is the same thing). But, hon­est­ly, what is the dif­fer­ence between the two pro­fes­sions in terms of body of knowl­edge or skill sets? Both require years of expe­ri­ence, appren­tice­ships, and even for­mal train­ing to mas­ter. But the idea of our kids becom­ing a chef seems to have more appeal than an elec­tri­cian because, why, exact­ly? We’ve just some­how decid­ed it’s not as worth and that needs to change.

By Jason Coleman

Structural engineer and technical content manager Bentley Systems by day. Geeky father and husband all the rest of time.


  1. Mike is a real­ly cool guy. And what he says is spot on. As you said good hands on skills will always be need­ed. Th

  2. Mike is a real­ly cool guy. And what he says is spot on. As you said good hands on skills will always be need­ed. At some point the demand will out­pace the sup­ply which should bring more peo­ple in chas­ing the inevitably high­er wage mak­ing up the sup­ply deficit. Right?

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