01:24 - Source: CNN
Rowe catches heat over this college advice

Story highlights

Mike Rowe's CNN show, "Somebody's Gotta Do it," airs tonight at 9 p.m. ET/PT

It features working people and is completely unscripted, with "no second takes"

Rowe hopes to break stigmas surrounding trade jobs and to close the "skills gap"

Despite requests from fans, Rowe has no current plans to run for political office

Editor’s Note: After much anticipation, Mike Rowe joins the CNN family with his new show, “Somebody’s Gotta Do It,” Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT. Returning to TV with his special brand of candor, Rowe now widens his spotlight to feature folks who perform unique jobs which many of us can’t even imagine. Follow him on Twitter @mikeroweworks. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

CNN —  

Between Mike Rowe’s television work and his philanthropic efforts with the Mike Rowe Works Foundation, Rowe holds true to one central passion: tipping his hat to those who work hard without much fanfare.

In Rowe’s new CNN series, he takes us to meet all of these folks who are the “somebodys” that “gotta do it!” He also wants to re-introduce himself to you. With the help of this Q&A, Rowe lets us in on a few details we maybe didn’t know before.

CNN: For those who may have been in hiding for the past several years, tell us a bit about who you are. Your unique brand of humor is famous, but please, include a little about your serious side. Describe how and why you try to make a difference.

MIKE ROWE: I’m a fairly simple sort. Oldest of three boys. Grew up in Baltimore. Got my start in the opera, (naturally,) transitioned to the home shopping industry, (logically) got fired multiple times, (inevitably.)

If you know me, it’s probably from a program called “Dirty Jobs,” which aired on Discovery for the last ten years. On Dirty Jobs, I assumed the role of an apprentice, and worked in all 50 states.

As far as “making a difference,” I try to avoid the earnestness that comes with most “causes,” but confess to being interested in American manufacturing, reinvigorating skilled labor, and bolstering alternative education.

I have a foundation called mikeroweWORKS that attempts to shine a light on good jobs that require the mastery of a skill that’s in demand. The foundation awards “Work Ethic Scholarships,” and partners with an assortment of trade schools and corporations. I give speeches and go to DC every so often to yell at Congress.

My reasons for doing this are personal, but not private. My granddad was a highly skilled tradesman with an 8th grade education. He could build a house without a blueprint. “Dirty Jobs” was a tribute to him, and during the course of shooting, I consistently heard about a shortage of workers who were willing to learn a new skill and put it to use.

Truth is, I had begun to take a lot of things for granted before “Dirty Jobs.” I had lost my wonder for the process of making things, and didn’t think much about the miracle of modern food production or the country’s infrastructure. Getting personally reconnected to the people who make all that possible was the best part of making the show.

I can’t speak to my “unique brand of humor,” beyond saying that I try mostly to keep myself amused.

Related story: Watch Mike sing a little opera music

Related story: Mike answers more CNN users’ questions

CNN: You seem committed to doing everything you can to make “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” as authentic and transparent as possible. As you say, “no second takes allowed.” Why is that idea important to you?

ROWE: Partly because no one else is doing it, and partly because the second take is never better than the first. Truth is, we don’t even do a “first take.” Takes are a function of scripts, scripts are a function of fiction, and fiction is a barrier to authenticity. Right now, traditional nonfiction television is under siege. “Reality” has nothing to do with real life, and “Unscripted” no longer means “without a script.” Look around. The Ducks have a “Dynasty,” The Amish have a “Mafia,” and “Honey’s Got a Boo Boo.” And they all have writers’ rooms.

Personally, I miss truly unscripted shows and I think a lot of viewers feel the same way. I love good fiction, but if you’re going to take me on an actual journey, and introduce me to real people doing real things, I want to see the unscripted truth of that experience. Warts and all.

CNN user RationalEyez asked: “What needs to be looked at with unbiased attention is the overall issue of why people aren’t pursuing the skilled trades for themselves or their children anymore. If consistency in pay and benefits is a large part of the problem, then what specifically and practically can be done to begin to effect change in that respect?

ROWE: Compensation and benefits matter a great deal, but with respect to the technical trades, they aren’t the fundamental barrier to recruitment. The bigger problems are stigmas, stereotypes, and misperceptions. I know what a motivated welder can make in his or her second year of work. I’ve seen dozens of tradesmen parlay their skill into a small business, and I’ve watched those businesses prosper.

But we don’t tell those stories. Instead, we’ve spent the last 40 years selling the idea that a four-year degree is the best path for the most people. Even now, when the vast majority of available jobs don’t require a diploma - we dismiss apprenticeships and training programs as “alternatives.”

Alternatives to what, exactly?

Now we’ve got a skills gap, high unemployment, and a trillion dollars in outstanding student loans. We’re still lending money we don’t have to kids that can’t pay it back to educate them for jobs that don’t exist. Skilled labor and alternative education need to be fundamentally reinvigorated, and part of the solution is transformative PR.

Back in 1953, American’s were inveterate litterbugs. We threw our crap out of the car window with impunity, and didn’t think twice about the garbage we left on our highways. To change that behavior, we had to challenge the country’s underlying relationship with litter. It took years, but remember the weeping Indian from The Keep America Beautiful campaign? That actually worked. More to the point, the campaign itself arose from a consortium of government agencies, NGO’s, private business, and concerned citizens. Keep America Beautiful is still around today.

That’s the kind of PR I’m talking about. Something iconic and sustainable that can challenge the prevailing definition of a “good job.” Honestly, that’s part of the reason I’m at CNN. Assuming anyone watches my show, I’ll be in business with a partner who can actually help move the needle around this issue. (hint, hint.)

CNN user urallidiots asked: “So this clown is an expert on employment, international trade and other global economic issues because he has a TV show?” [CNN: Perhaps urallidiots might rephrase that rather pointed question to ask: Would you tell us a little about how your opinions on labor issues are informed by your educational background and your experience?]

ROWE: Actually, the idiot-guy makes a good point. No one wants to be lectured, especially by a guy who’s best known for crawling through sewers. My opinions are based on what I believe to be true about the way the world works, but they should not be indulged simply because I’m on the tube. In fact, I’ve been aggressively transparent about my lack of credentials. I have no economic bona fides, and no real expertise on employment issues. However, I do have a perspective that most people don’t.

For the last 10 years, I’ve had a front row seat to work in America. I’ve apprenticed on 300 different jobs, and gotten a glimpse of work as it really exists in every major industry. I’ve seen our infrastructure close up, and worked with the people who tend to it. From mining to farming, I’ve had a chance to meet the men and women who keep the lights on. That certainly doesn’t make me an expert - but it does make me a witness.

Today, my position is that of a guy who’s hopelessly addicted to smooth roads, affordable energy, sturdy bridges, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and three meals a day. I’m impressed by the people who make these things possible, and by the companies who hire them. In short, I’m a fan of hard work, regardless of the color of the collar. But mostly, I’m aware that many great opportunities exist for people who are willing to learn a trade. Calling attention to those opportunities seems like a worthwhile and consistent thing for me to do with the notoriety I have. So I’m doing it.

CNN user bbroome62 wrote: “Mike would make a great congressman. As a matter of fact, isn’t this why we hire our representatives? To come up with solutions.” [CNN: That begs the question: Would you ever consider running for office? Why or why not? What’s one specific issue that national lawmakers are ignoring that they should address now?]

ROWE: Flattering, but no. I’m happy to ask people to watch my show, but asking for their vote would make my eye twitch. And what if I won? Yikes. Then what?

As for issues being ignored, the list is long, but I still think term limits is somewhere near the top. Our country should not be run by people who wish to spend their whole life running our country, and the current system all but requires that level of ambition from those people willing to serve. It’s just too much. Our leaders now spend half their time in power raising money, and the other half trying to get re-elected. I suspect a lot of decent, civic-minded citizens would be willing to serve for a few years if they knew they weren’t running against someone who wants to be carried out in a box.