You probably know Mike Rowe as the ubiquitous pitchman for Ford Motor Co. (IW 500/6) and the host of the Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs." But lately, Rowe has taken on a new role -- as an ambassador for manufacturing and other blue-collar jobs.
On Wednesday, Rowe took the stage with GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other business leaders as part of a manufacturing summit in Cleveland organized by the Romney campaign.
Wearing his trademark blue jeans and baseball cap, Rowe told the crowd of several hundred people that his notoriety as the creator and host of "Dirty Jobs" -- which "profiles the unsung American laborers," as the show describes it -- thrust him into the unlikely position of a go-to manufacturing guru.
"Reporters started to call me -- which is hysterical, me -- to ask, 'Mike, what are your thoughts on outsourcing and currency valuation? How about the infrastructure? And what do you say about the skills gap? And how do you recognize these two diametrically seemingly opposed data points vis-a-vis spiking unemployment and a widening skills gap?'" Rowe explained. "And I'm like, 'I don't know what you're talking about, really.'"
While the self-deprecating Rowe emphasized that "you could fill a book with what I don't know," he said his visits to hundreds of job sites across the country have led him to believe that the underlying cause of the skills gap is "real simple."
The problem, Rowe asserted, is that most Americans take for granted the occupations "that keep society moving" -- such as coalminers, bridge painters, oil drillers, electricians and pig farmers.
"I personally and honestly believe that we have unintentionally disconnected ourselves in a really fundamental way from the most important part of our workforce," Rowe said.
While many people say the lack of jobs in the United States stems from a lack of opportunity and training, Rowe believes the poor perception of factory jobs and other blue-collar trades is the key issue.
"From what I've seen, it has something to do with the conversation that we have on a daily basis," Rowe said. "What I really do believe is that we can't just talk about opportunity and we can't just talk about training. We have to try and reconnect on a level that has nothing to do with the local or the national news or whoever happens to wind up at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
"The conversation needs to start in the kitchen, around the table, with moms and dads and kids. And when these kids start to think about what's possible, mothers and fathers can't immediately push options off of the table because they've bought into the idea that some jobs are better than other jobs."
On a Mission
Rowe participated in Romney's Cleveland rally at the invitation of the Romney campaign, but he wasn't there to endorse the Republican candidate or to bash Obama.
Rowe wrote a letter to Romney offering his services and explaining that he is on a mission to drum up "enthusiasm for careers that have been overlooked and underappreciated by society at large." Rowe noted that he wrote a similar letter to Obama in 2009, but Obama never responded.
"We need to have a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce," Rowe told Romney in the letter, which is published on Rowe's website, mikeroweworks.com.
In the letter, Rowe hit on some of the same themes as he did at the Cleveland rally, lamenting that the skills gap can be traced back to this country's "ridiculously narrow view of education."
"Any kind of training or study that does not come with a four-year degree is now deemed 'alternative,'" Rowe said in the letter. "Many viable careers once aspired to are now seen as 'vocational consolation prizes,' and many of the jobs this current administration has tried to 'create' over the last four years are the same jobs that parents and teachers actively discourage kids from pursuing."
He added: "I always thought there was something ill-fated about the promise of 3 million 'shovel-ready jobs' made to a society that no longer encourages people to pick up a shovel."
Rowe's efforts to boost the image of blue-collar jobs go beyond rhetoric.
His website is a hub of information on skilled trades, vocational training and career opportunities, and the states of Alabama and Georgia have used it as a platform to launch technical recruitment campaigns.
Rowe created the nonprofit mikeroweWorks Foundation to raise public awareness of skilled trades and to support organizations that provide vocational training and career planning. According to Rowe, the foundation has raised more than $1 million for trade scholarships.
"There has to be a better way to be happy and successful in your career than simply assuming a massive amount of debt and exiting an educational program that gives you a degree without training," Rowe told the crowd at the Romney rally in Cleveland. "The conversation has to start early, early, early on."
For more on the manufacturing issues shaping the 2012 election, click here.