Diplomas vs. Dirty Jobs

TV host Mike Rowe on the educational bias against unglamorous, good-paying work

(Page 2 of 6)

Rowe: Mr. Dunbar, yeah. He called me down, as millions of kids have been called down, to talk about my future. He was looking at some test scores and said, "You're not an idiot. You've got a shot at James Madison University in Maryland, maybe some other schools." I said, "I don't have any money, but more importantly, I don't have any idea what I want to do. So, while I figure that out, I thought I'd go to a community college." At which point he says, "Well, that's way below your potential," and pointed to the poster that said "Work Smart, Not Hard."

The thing about the poster wasn't just the bromide at the bottom. It was the image. On the left-hand side you've got a college graduate, recently matriculated, cap and gown, sun setting behind him, looking like he owns the world and the future. Next to him is a mechanic, holding a wrench, covered in grease or something worse, looking at the ground like he won the vocational consolation prize of all time. That was a very specific PR campaign for college, higher education.

reason: This was the late '70s?

Rowe: 1979, yeah. All PR campaigns always go too far, and they always, it seems, promote the thing they want to focus on at the expense of something else. Now, it's kind of egregious in education, but in my opinion, it shouldn't be shocking, because the best way to sell a truck is to talk about how lousy the competitor is. The best way to get elected is to talk about how creepy your opponent is. The best way to really promote college hard is to talk about how subordinate all the other opportunities are.

Now, as part of our ongoing campaign for the trades, we sell posters that say "Work Smart and Hard." I now play the role of the graduate standing there holding my degree looking somewhat confused by the industrial setting in which I find myself next to a far more aspirational tradesman. It's just another way to juxtapose these roles.

reason: What are the goals of the "Work Smart and Hard" campaign?

Rowe: We have to change the conversation and we have to challenge the existing protocol. The first thing is this general PR campaign around the trades. The second thing, there is a financial thing. The posters were only $10, but if I can get 20,000 or 30,000 of them hanging in guidance counselors' offices around the country, well that's fun. We take the money we raise, of course, and it goes into a foundation to keep the conversation going and to award what we call a work ethic scholarship.

reason: What is a work ethic scholarship?

Rowe: The scholarship business, as I understand it right now, rewards four basic things: intelligence, so you have academic scholarships; athleticism-if you can hit a three-pointer, we have money for you for days; talent, we reward talent; and of course need. Who's addressing work ethic? Who's affirmatively trying to reward the behavior we want to encourage? The behavior that mikeroweWORKS wants to at least talk about redounds to two things: the willingness to learn a useful skill and the willingness to work your ass off. Combined, we think that is something that ought to be affirmatively rewarded.

reason: When did the idea disappear that you should learn a skill that is actually useful or in need, and that you should work hard?

Rowe: That's a good question for a real social anthropologist. My own opinion is just that there's a kind of inertia that most parents would agree exists, and it's the desire to see something better for your kids than you had. The question is: What is better? Is it better right now today to have $140,000 in debt but a degree from Georgetown in law? Or is it better to be that kid I described up in Butler? I don't know. But there is an inertia that says the first one is a better thing.

reason: Let's talk a little bit about the college loan scam. You talk about how there's a trillion dollars in debt. Most of that principal will be paid off by the people who take the loans. But you're against the idea of taxpayer-supported loans for going to college.

Rowe: We hold the note. Whether I'm against it or not, I get a little curious about when it gets to a trillion dollars. If we are lending money that ostensibly we don't have to kids who have no hope of making it back in order to train them for jobs that clearly don't exist, I might suggest that we've gone around the bend a little bit.

reason: And pumping that extra money into the system allows colleges to raise their prices.

Rowe: Of course. The cost of a degree has increased so exponentially, I can't believe it's not daily news. Imagine any other commodity increasing at that rate.

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  • carol||

    It broke my heart when my straight A, gifted son decided that college wasn't for him and he became an ironworker. As a single parent I busted my ass to see to it that he and his sister would have the money they needed for college and ironworking wasn't part of the plan. Then I realized that it wasn't my plan or my life, it was his. Do you guys know what ironworkers make? My son has a job he enjoys and he makes a very good living. There is a lot to be said in favor of "dirty jobs".

  • Libertarius||

    Indeed. I went to college for economics and philosophy, and now I'm a freight conductor on a Class 1 RR. I love the RR, I love being out there, and I make *really* good money.

    Plus, there has always been a romance about the RRs in American culture, and little kids go nuts when they see my train go by.

  • Mr. Lahey||

    To me, the RR, in practice not theory, seems to be a business highly incompatible with libertarianism. Not to say there is anything wrong with the technology or the romance associated with it, but the over-a-century of regulations, labor issues, eminent domain, history of govt land giveaways, etc make it seem like an odd place for libertarianism (aside from the Dagny Taggart thing...). I'm not arguing against your choice of career, I'm just curious to know your perspective from the inside. The few RR men I've ever known were labor-democrat-types.

  • ||

    Bet when you were sitting in some microeconomics class, you weren't daydreaming about walking a 100-car coal train at 2am in the dead of winter searching for a busted air hose :-)

  • ||

    I'm going to do my best to encourage my sons to consider anything and everything--to find a need they can fill and do their best to fill it. Yes, I have the liberal arts education and the graduate degree, but by no means do I think my path is the best or only way to attainment. I certainly don't feel useful and needed in the way a welder is.

    Keep preaching, Mike Rowe!

  • ||

    One day in high school, I came home from shop class smiling from ear to ear telling my parents I wanted to become a welder. I told them wire welding and stick welding were both so awesome! They were absolutely horrified... This reaction really impacted me, so I kind of talked myself out of taking the welder path. I ended up going to college and doing well. Then I went to law school and did well. I now have a good career that I enjoy (and, of course, the parents are super proud); however, I also have a pile of law school debt and a late start in saving for retirement.

    After reading this, maybe I should have become a welder and told my parents to flush off. I could have spent my twenties making good money and saving for retirement instead of studying my ass off to enter a grossly over-supplied field. However, I don't regret the path I've taken, it's just funny that dumb-ass high school me may have actually been on to something. I will definitely remember that if my kids someday come home from school and tell me they want to take the road less traveled. Keep on keepin' on, Mike Rowe.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    Some thoughts;

    It seems to me that a substantial part of the problem is that colleges are now expected to provide a lot of the basic grounding that in the past was expected of High School grads. My Grandfather graduated from a public high school familiar (if perhaps not fluent) in two languages other than English, and conversant with math through beginning calculus. I graduated from a private school in 1978. I had been slightly exposed to ONE language other than English, and could have taken calculus, but wasn't required to. Kids I knew in Public Schools were getting material I had gone through in 9th grade. As with so many things today, before much else happens, the public schools need to be reformed - possibly with a bulldozer.

    I am increasingly suspicious of the campaign against "for profit" colleges. The accusations leveled against them - basically that they do not return value for money, and that they make a lot of promises they have no intention of keeping - would seem to apply equally well to the traditional colleges. I have to wonder if the proponents of the traditional colleges are attacking their competition in an attempt to distract from their own failures.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||


    The cold fact is that a BA degree qualifies you to pursue an MA, and damned little else. A BS is slightly better, though not dependably. Colleges have historically been for scholars and for the idle children of the Upper Classes. Thanks to the runaway success of our culture, the latter describes a huge proportion of the population … up to a point. But our wealth does not, on the whole, replicate itself without effort the way the wealth of the Aristocracy did before the Industrial Revolution. We need to bring our children up to work for a living. We also need to impress on them that being a protest-hobbyist isn't work.

  • MJBinAL||

    It is telling that you a long time the degrees that had practical application, such as engineering, were taught in separate colleges, even separate universities. They were not held in the same esteem and the children of the "upper classes" did not go to "Agriculture and Mining" schools but to Harvard, or Harvard-wanna-be's.

    But look around the world. Those lower and middle-class graduates of "Agriculture and Mining" schools along with the skilled trades created and built everything that we count on in modern life.

    However nice it may be to have access to a shrink now and then, even they are a luxury of the free time and prosperity created by the engineers and the skilled trades.

    I certainly remember the joke engineering students tell each other about the Psychology majors ....

    What is the single most important phrase every Psychology major must learn for their future career?

    "Would you like fries with that?"

  • Combat Missionary||

    Amen to ALL this. But hey, the college bubble is starting to burst too.

  • ||

    Yeah. I basically have all the education. Highly trained expert in economics specializing in public policy analysis. Member of Mensa. Intellectual elite of the planet...

    Yeah, my family was big on education and quite thoroughly programmed me to look down on the idea of being a tradesman. "you're smarter than that. You could do so much more." Etc.

    What do I think of skilled tradesmen? I think everything of them. Skilled tradesmen are the elite of the planet. I wish I could be one. I really wish I could have lived my life over. Good welders (/carpenters/plumbers/electricians/masons/...) are always in demand, they make things and someone always needs something made.

    Me? I can explain why ObamaCare will make the US people somewhat worse off, in the long run, to people who either already agree with me or disagree but don't have the skills to parse what I am saying and so dismiss me as just another nattering nabob of negativism. I can do this for pretty much every government policy.

    I'm either redundant or unwanted. Go into politics? I have Sheldon Cooper's social skills.

    Yeah, I agree with the article entirely. I will give 'official' imprimatur on the statement that throwing more money at something in relatively fixed supply will only ever jack up the price. I know that because I'm a highly trained expert economist.

    Nick Gillespie knew it too. He didn't need me to tell him.

    Isn't education wonderful?

  • Irrational||

    I know a lot of people either out of work; working in fields unrelated to their educations; or way underemployed.
    Know what they all have in common?
    College educated.
    Just the other day, the hospital at which my wife is employed,slashed an entire department with no advance warning, putting two DOCTORS, and the entirety of their staffs on the streets.
    I also have blue collar friends. Landscapers, fence builders, welders, HVAC, auto body repair/paint.
    None of them has missed a beat in this economy. In fact, my best friend, a landscaping supervisor, is married to woman who graduated college six years ago. She has been let go from two jobs, and is now working over at Pearle Vision, making about $10.00 per hr.
    I share the same sentiments expressed by others here - I look up to a man (or woman) who can work with his/her hands and his back.

  • Combat Missionary||

    My wife once asked her grandfather how he was affected by the Great Depression. His answer? "Life didn't really change for the poor folks. But it made a lot of rich folks poor."

    I just helped our local boy scout troop earn the Automotive Maintenance merit badge. I told them, "You can't ship your house to India when it needs a roof, and it's too expensive to ship your car to Mexico for a new rear main seal. Go into the trades, and you'll never be unemployed long.

  • LibertarianX||

    That MBA is great until your water heater dies. Or your AC quits. I've never met a broke plumber. People with skills are always in demand. French Lit majors, not so much.

  • regeya||

    This, of course, assumes that getting a college degree means that a person is incapable of working on their water heater or AC. A couple of summers ago I watched a meteorologist repair a central air unit. No joke.

  • David Wall||

    I'm with Mike Rowe on everything except the quintessential blue collar job--it is not welders, it is industrial maintenance/mechanics. Welders are up there, but industrial maintenance guys are the MacGyver's of manufacturing. Industrial mechanics not only do welding, they fix machines, replace parts, do preventative maintenance, fabricate parts you can't get in time, do work arounds, train operators how to make machines run, do electrical work, do electronics, do plumbing, run conduit, fix boilers, fix toilets, fix windows, everything. They do it all. They are the ones that keep American Industry going.

    Having a competent maintenance guy on your shift can make or break your attempt to make production goals. They command the largest blue collar salaries consistently. They are worth it. They are absolutely essential to any successful manufacturing business. Ask anyone in manufacturing, they will tell you the same.

    Invariably, the goods ones are always upbeat, optimistic with "can do" personalities. Superb attitudes and knowledge. The goods ones love their jobs, make lots of money and are the coolest dudes in the plant.

    I will always love these guys.

  • regeya||

    That's what my dad was, and he made a very good living.

    You know what he had to have to get the job, though?

    A college degree.

  • american socialist||

    On the other hand... Maybe you can go to college, get a good paying job and learn to TIG weld and put in a new kitchen on the side. Another benefit to college is that you can learn some history and find out what happens when right-wing libertarians-- in their various guises-- more or less run the show. It happened in the 1880s, 1920s and 2000s with fairly dismal outcomes.

    I think the article has a point. We reward unproductive activity-- like commodities trading for one-- with lavish salaries and reward blue collar work less so. I think three aspects of a solution to this problem is higher taxes on upper incomes, the rebuilding of blue collar trade unions, and a political party dedicated to unapologetically progressive politics.

    I find the anti-intellectualism of the modern conservative that is implicit in this article off-putting. I certainly would not have agreed with wf Buckley on much, but he would never aligned himself with people who didn't consider a university experience important.

  • Crimson Alliance||

    Name the "right-wing libertarians" that were running the country in the 2000's. I recall republicans doing their "progressive-lite" thing. That was pretty dismal, I agree. Not as dismal as our current "progressive extra-strength" state of affairs, of course. So at what point do progressive agendas payoff the 17 trillion in debt we have? Progressives make debt. They sure as fuck don't pay it down.

  • ||

    D- trolling


  • MJBinAL||

    I find it interesting that your arguments are so poor that you have to construct your own imaginary (and lame) opposition to refute.

    Perhaps, you might consider actually thinking about a actual opposing point long enough to refute it.

    If you would be interested in considering that, a good starting point would be to stop lumping everyone you disagree with into a single group.

    For starters, "right-wing libertarians" is an oxymoron. The classic examples of "right wing" that are used include Franco in Spain and Pinochet in Chile. Neither of these men were remotely libertarian, they were in fact Fascist dictators. The represented strong dictatorial central governments that included government enforcement of social codes. They were in fact, far from libertarian ideals.

    There are Democrats (a few) who are nearly libertarian and are Democrats because for decades the GOP has been the party of government enforcement of social codes they find repugnant and there are Republicans who are nearly libertarian because the Democrats have been the party of large intrusive Government that controls nearly everything else.

  • MJBinAL||

    This is one of the problems with having a predominately two party system. People who lean libertarian ended up choosing either social freedom or economic freedom as no party favored (or pretended to favor in truth) both. I understand this well as my own path went from Democrat over social issues, to Republican to economic issues, to Libertarian for both.

    In an ideal world, you would be a member of the Socialist Party, John McCain would be a member of a Fascist Party, Bernie Sanders would join the Communist Party, and I would be a Libertarian.

    Unfortunately, life isn't that simple and the simplistic "wit me or agin me" that you and G.W. Bush have isn't really valid.

  • politicsbyothermeans||

    You and your ilk really need that four extra years of indoctrination, dontcha?

    The fact that a self-proclaimed socialist can comment on anti-intellectualism without a hint of irony is easily the funniest, or saddest, thing I've seen all day.

  • Combat Missionary||

    Economies have ups and downs. It's part of life. The problem is, when Leftists get in charge, they always put in huge tax burdens for welfare programs, and they always saddle business with regulation. So what happens? When the economy takes a crap, we have the welfare programs to support, so we raise taxes and hurt the economy more, because there are liabilities to be met. On top of that, the regulation makes it so business can't grow nearly as fast, so the ups take a much longer time coming.

    You can't stop the ups and downs of the economy. Leftism just makes the downs a lot deeper and the recoveries take a lot longer.

  • ||

    "We reward unproductive activity-- like commodities trading for one-- with lavish salaries and reward blue collar work less so."

    Uh, no. Economies outside of North Korea DO NOT WORK LIKE THAT!

    'We' do not 'reward' anyone. Person X's employer (or client) pays them for performing a valuable service. It is not a reward. It is the reason person X did [whatever] in the first place.

    And, no, commodities trading is NOT "unproductive activity". Really, if it were unproductive people wouldn't pay them to do it. People pay them because they perform a valuable service.

    How does society benefit? More accurate commodity prices. Accurate prices are THE necessary factor in efficient allocation of resources.

    Are you thinking 'well, it's a zero sum game and...'? No, it isn't. Trade is NOT a zero sum game. Trade benefits both parties. That why they trade at all.

  • DenverJay||

    I remember going off in this space on one of the Reason staff, some punk who talked shit about construction workers.
    everybody should go to college, sometime in their life, for the knowledge. Everybody should learn things, especially history. But that doesn't mean you should ignore the trades as a career. During my rant against the delicate flower who talked crap about construction workers, I mentioned welding. It is HARD! I suck at welding; perhaps I got frustrated and gave up to easy, but it is still very hard to do properly.
    If there are kids reading this, try welding. If you discover you have a knack for it, pursue it. You will always be in demand, and make good money. (Yes, it is a dirty job. I mean, you get covered in black stuff, and you have to wear heavy clothing and a mask, you sweat a lot.)

  • DenverJay||

    UH...lets see, "everybody" should be capitalized, "to" should be "too", etc.

  • Crimson Alliance||

    Funding college educations is a big winner for progressives. It provides yet another teat for the ignorant masses to begin their government subsidy addiction AND they can point to it, with heads held high, declaring "we are making sure everyone gets educated". The real bait and switch is that the more people who get a BA, the less a BA is worth. The ease of securing a government backed loan is skewing the market. BA's mean nothing while the price of college skyrockets. Introduce government in the free market and you will always get the mess that our higher education system is becoming. If you progressive morons thought the "housing bubble" was bad, wait till the "student loan bubble" bursts. Your mess, you fucks clean it up.

  • BuSab Agent||

    My best friend was a master welder, he specialized in pressure gas lines and was qualified to work on nuclear installations. He made welding look like magic; the metal going exactly where he wanted with no waste, and flawless even under a microscope. He never wanted for high paying jobs, but he spent a hellacious amount of time on the road. Unfortunately the road time got him--accident on an icy road on the way back from Alaska.

  • MikeTheTank||

    Mike Rowe is the best.

  • ibcbet||

    Good story

  • judeoconnor@mac.com||

    Getting the sheepskin pads the professors wallet. Colleges and universities are a business like it or not. Usually the 4 yrs. is a maturing time for students. A third flunk out the first year. If you get a degree your four years behind the kid who started working right out of high school. There are many degreed fast food employees with a student loan over their head. Get tested out and find out your capabilities which could be something you are not cognizant of. If you are very mechanical you would be bored to death as a lawyer or accountant. If you can drive a nail it don't make you a carpenter but there are different carpenters such as scaffolding, rough, finish and the top of the line that call themselves, cabinet makers. The same logic for other trades too. Welders are classed very differently and each improvement qualifies you to more advanced work. Different metals, codes, positions, thicknesses, gases, underwater, radiation, air suites, height, are some of the different conditions.


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