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Dirty Jobs' Host Mike Rowe Says Skilled Trades Need a Makeover

Two men sitting on chairs talking.
​​Mike Rowe speaks at the SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition

Television personality Mike Rowe, former host of the "Dirty Jobs" television program about hands-on, blue-collar work, told a Congressional panel discussing career and technical education and the skilled trades, "You've got to make work cool again."

Rowe—CEO of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which provides scholarships to study skilled trades—addressed a House Education and the Workforce subcommittee Feb. 28 as Congress prepares to consider new legislation that would reauthorize federal funding for career and technical education and training.

Rep. Glenn Thompson, R-Pa., the chief sponsor of failed 2016 bipartisan legislation reauthorizing the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, said he would be reintroducing the legislation shortly.

The 2016 reauthorization bill passed the House of Representatives 405-5 but was not taken up in the Senate.

The law provides over $1 billion in federal support for career and technical education programs across the country, including support for integrated career pathways programs.

"These programs serve more than 11 million students—helping them receive knowledge, skills and real-world experience in fields ranging from health care and law enforcement to information technology and manufacturing," said subcommittee chair Rep. Todd Rokita, R-Ind. "It's a worthwhile investment in growing a skilled workforce, preparing students for postsecondary education or the workplace, and helping hardworking individuals—particularly younger individuals—achieve their goals in life."

Rokita said he is "very optimistic" about the proposal being signed into law to counter the growing national skills gap. "This need for skilled labor exists in a number of critical industries," he said. "In manufacturing alone, six out of 10 positions go unfilled because of the skills gap, and 84 percent of manufacturers agree there is a talent shortage. What's worse is that if current projections continue, more than 6 million jobs will remain unfilled by the year 2020." Panelists before the committee agreed that a major reason for this divide is that too many young people entering the labor force are not only unprepared for these critical jobs but are actually persuaded not to consider what used to be called vocational education and the skilled trades professions that result from it.

"Vocational education is still missing from an overwhelming majority of high schools," Rowe said. "Bills like the one before this committee still meet resistance, in part because millions of Americans still view a career in the trades as some kind of 'vocational consolation prize.' It's a bias as misguided as any other prejudice with us today, and it poses a clear and present danger to our country's overall economic security."

He added that the skills gap will never close "if we keep telling people a four-year degree is their only hope of being successful."

Rowe suggested a nationwide public relations facelift coordinated among employers, government, schools and nonprofits to elevate career and technical training and skilled trades jobs, similar to the 1950s Keep America Beautiful anti-littering campaign.

"You have to make [skilled trades work] aspirational," he said. "You have to change the image of the opportunity."

Rowe, one of the keynote speakers at SHRM's Annual Conference & Exposition in summer 2016, told conference attendees his story about how the San Francisco Sewers offered a lesson in appreciating workers who perform seemingly thankless jobs that are critical to the day-to-day lives of millions of Americans.

Business Partnerships and Work-Based Learning

Employers are key partners in supporting career and technical education through providing real-world learning experiences for students. "Through their interactions with industry professionals,

students realize their coursework is relevant, and, in fact, does translate into meaningful career skills and job opportunities," said Janet Goble, director of career and technical education for the Canyons School District in Sandy, Utah.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: How do I partner with local colleges to develop workers?]

Goble told the committee about successful partnerships among her district, the state's office of economic development, the Salt Lake Community College system and local employers. For example, the partners created a pathway for students to become diesel technicians, starting with dual enrollment courses in high school and college to learn industry skills. They applied the same model with medical device manufacturers.

"The industry partners have donated many hours of their time to job shadow experiences for our students, participating in numerous career fairs and enlightening counselors about this viable career pathway," she said. Perkins funds were instrumental in developing work-based learning opportunities for students and adults looking to retool their skills, she added.  

Glenn E. Johnson, a workforce development leader at BASF, a multinational chemicals manufacturing corporation headquartered in Ludwigshafen, Germany, explained that alignment between the education system and the business community is critical to mitigate the impact of the national skills gap.

"BASF is taking a more engaged approach to workforce development and is focusing on pipeline relationship management," he said. That includes "direct involvement in all stages of workforce preparation. … Surveys report that 52 percent of all teenagers say they have no interest in a manufacturing career. However, the data also reports that the most influential factor for students deciding what career to pursue is [what they've been exposed to]. This drives our need to do more to familiarize these workforce potentials with jobs in manufacturing technology."

Some of the ways BASF equips students and other potential candidates with a more positive perception of the industry are:

  • Helping grade-school students develop an interest in science.
  • Positioning high-school students in skilled science, technology, engineering and mathematics career paths.
  • Correcting misconceptions about pay, lifestyle and future job availability projections.
  • Asking employee resource groups to serve as ambassadors focused on diverse populations.
  • Setting up comprehensive apprenticeship programs.

"Apprenticeships provide a realistic job preview before students finish their actual education," Johnson said. "They not only increase the direct applied skills for [the individual in the program], but the experience pushes career and technical education awareness to their friends."

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