TV's Mike Rowe Takes On the Dirty Job of Dignifying Hard Work

On Dirty Jobs, a weekly exploration into the roughest, toughest and filthiest jobs in America, host Mike Rowe is a perpetual fish out of water. "It's Groundhog Day in a sewer for me," he admits in an interview with DailyFinance, "and it has been for six years." Although the Discovery Channel show takes Rowe through swamps and feed lots, steam boilers and sewers, he has maintained a light, self-deprecating humor: Like a filth-encrusted Candide or a polluted Pollyanna, he gamely and playfully dives into whatever muck and feces his producers and featured co-workers can devise.

But on Labor Day 2008, Rowe wasn't joking. In a 10-minute video, shot in his San Francisco living room, he declared the launch of MikeRoweWorks, a website -- and, later, a foundation -- aimed at advocating and supporting blue-collar labor. With only a slight touch of his characteristic humor, he told the camera that "We've declared war on work [and] we need to start a conversation about the casualties of this war or the nation's going to fall apart." Citing declining trade school enrollments, a crumbling infrastructure, and the increased marginalization of the trades, he declared that "Hard work needs a PR campaign ... that's what I want to do with the next few years of my life."

Working Blue ... Collar

Rowe's goals were ambitious. The site was going to be a sounding-board and labor advocacy area, "a place online where tradesmen can have a community, where parents can come with their kids to look at a case for the trades, where we can regain the fun, nobility, respect, honor and dignity that used to come along with our traditional notions of work." In this endeavor, as on his show, Rowe asked his viewers to become his co-conspirators, soliciting suggestions for resources, articles, and features that he could put on the site.

Two years later, MikeRoweWorks has many of the resources that Rowe originally envisioned. Dozens of message boards explore a broad spectrum of tradesmen's work issues, from employment to politics to on-the-job horror stories. In other areas, sections on trade education offer parents and students a state-by-state overview of the schools and financial aid programs that are available to them. Readers' posts delve into the larger political and economic issues surrounding the trades, and op-ed style sections expand on some of the controversial positions that Rowe has taken on his show.

Rowe is quick to share credit for the sprawling site with his viewers, noting that "every trade resource that's on there was a link or a suggestion provided by a viewer of the show." Rowe attributes his site's -- and his show's -- success to an ongoing national interest in reconsidering work and its impact on society: "People want to talk about work because it reflects their identity and the people that do these sorts of jobs have just been so roundly ignored for so long. People are just aching to talk to these issues."

What Color Is Your Collar?

One potential pitfall of a blue collar advocacy site is that it could easily turn into an online class war: "The tricky part is that people want to quickly get to the part where 'Oh, okay, you're speaking on behalf of the disenfranchised proletariat' or 'Oh, I see, you're in defense of the Ivy League.'" Rowe notes. "But it's neither. It's both." The trouble, he suggests, is that American society has drawn an absolute dividing line between manual labor and intellectual work, blue collars and white collars. Advocating what he calls the "Muddy boots architect," Rowe wants to see a blurring of the collars, "an integration of physicality and intellectual thought."

A big part of this is education. Noting declining trade school enrollments, Rowe argues that the attack on manual labor takes place in both the public arena and at the dinner table.

"We no longer encourage our kids to learn a trade," he says "We tell them instead that going to college is the only way to get ahead in life ... I'm all for getting an education, but not at the expense of completely marginalizing the kinds of jobs that built the country." The solution, he argues, is for parents and children to take a realistic look at the economy and consider all potential options when looking for post-secondary education: "In the end, the point of the site is to say, we are not in an economy where you should be eliminating options."

Paying For It

In April 2009, the IRS certified MikeRoweWorks as a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation. To support the site and charity, Rowe has sought partnerships with companies that ask for his endorsement: "I'm talking to companies who are interested in hiring me to do something typical and saying 'look, if we do any business at all, you need to take a position in MikeRoweWorks. You need to make MikeRoweWorks a component of your ad campaign and your marketing message.' I don't know what that means as a business model, but I do know that those companies understand work, infrastructure and trades." So far, the move has worked: although the site doesn't have pop-ups or banner ads, industrial supply company Grainger has cross-promoted with the site, as have Lee (VFC), Motorola (MOT) and Caterpillar (CAT).

On Monday, MikeRoweWorks celebrates its second birthday, and the site is still finding its unique identity. In addition to promoting manual labor, it has also become a sort of video scrapbook of all things Mike Rowe: Fans can watch videos of his sarcastic spots from when he worked the graveyard shift at QVC, buy MikeRoweWorks-themed T-shirts and paperweights, or read his blog. But beyond the playful tone, there is still a serious message.

As Rowe puts it, "We've lost the wonder that we used to hold for people who make things. That's what's really taken a black eye. That's what I mean by the war on work. We need to move beyond the American idols and rediscover our American icons."

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God Bless you Mike, I am a retired Millwright. I know some of you are saying what the heck is a Millwright. Well its a lot of maintenance work. I did well at this and fed my family and pretty much lived the American dream. Now, the problem is this most of all the jobs the skilled Tradesman did are gone now. They went the path of the Steel Mills, The Automotive giants, and the useable goods that Americas used to make for Americans. I am refering to clothes,washers dryers garbage disposals, etc-you get the drift. What caused most of this was not the unions it was corperate greed called NAFTA. I will give a short example, we ship a car to japan to sell and pay 10 to 12% in fees to japan we accept millions and of cars from them and they paY 1%. I think its evident I am not a genious but we have to get a handle on bringing goods into America because if we do not we will die as a nation. Enough said, Thanks

September 07 2010 at 8:09 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply


September 07 2010 at 7:55 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply

First of all my 15y.o. son and I enjoy Dirty Jobs and always get an education along with a laugh! Thanks for that Mike. I am a Tile Mechanic and often get my hands (and arms and legs and face, well you know) ah, dirty. I respect and support what your doing to get America back where it should be. It will take alot of sweat and Coast soap. I'll be on board your work force with a smile on my face. Look us up when your in the Portland, Maine area, Buenos dias amigo!

September 07 2010 at 7:44 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

mike, thanks for standing for the working class. i watch your show all the time and enjoy. i talk to my grandchildren all the time as to what they are going to do when they get to be retirement age. i am 74 with 42 years in oper engs. so i know what the value is for retirement. thanks mike keep up the good work. bruce healy.

September 07 2010 at 5:25 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It's really hard these days to take a lot of pride in hard work when you have characters like Lindsay Lohan or Paris Hilton running around, doing whatever they want legally and otherwise, and living off endless flows of money by doing NOTHING except being famous.

September 07 2010 at 1:22 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

Any job will do

September 06 2010 at 10:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
Boyen and Audrey

Mike, I spent 37 years in education - most of the time as a vocational counselor. i could not agree more with all you have said and what you plan to do. Regional Occupational Programs (ROP) were absolutely great - providing the skills for good paying and productive jobs for brilliant, average and marginal kids. However, we saw the decline and death of such programs in recent years as "...a college education is the only way to make it in this electronic and computerize world." Nuts! My oldest son is a retired plumber and made more money and contributed equally as much to our society as my other two sons - one a teacher and the other a telecommunications consultant. Go with it! Erase the stigma of vocational education and working with your hands as well as your mind. You are right on target and we salute you. There are many hidden social,labor and employment problems that could be alleviated. Gene Beckel, reired educator, Richmond, CA.

September 06 2010 at 10:21 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
Gary Burgess

I like what you have to say Mike, behind you all the way...Will Rogers said,"What the country needs is cleaner minds and dirtier fingernails"..There is real dignity in the man or woman who works those manual labor jobs, produces real products and makes an honest living in the process. The workingman or woman can be proud of their labors and accomplishments. My dad and grandfather were of that strain and taught me there was no shame in working hard. I've tried to instill that in my children and I think you're right on the money in your efforts. You certainly have my ear, support and encouragment.

September 06 2010 at 10:17 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply

Great for "Dirty Jobs"! Other countries are succeeding in the winning the war without a shot being fired. This country will be in complete anguish which is quickly taking place at this very moment. People need become more aware of such thanks to your show "Dirty Jobs". This country may succeed in becoming number ONE in manual labor as took place recently in the past! Dirty Jobs may help people realize this before it is in complete anguish in which direction it is heading now. Thank you for your show!

September 06 2010 at 10:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Screw the working class..............They bought into the whole Ronnie Regan give the rich all the tax breaks and money, deregulated everything, free trade is good for you, get rid of unions, leave Wall St alone, pardon the illegals, lets spend all the money to be the World Police Dept and it will all trickel down to you..........Well how did that trickle down thing work out????????? The working class got got exactly what they deserved a job at Walmart or no job at all............

September 06 2010 at 9:11 PM Report abuse -3 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to cross61roads's comment

cross61roads A little harsh but you have a valid point. Unaware or just plain stupid voters elected the Elite class and pay now with a crap economy and no jobs. Millionairs are elected as our esteemed leaders, (if they weren't rich when first elected they certainly become filthy rich while in office) then skew tax laws in their and their friends favor and the great unwashed just stand by lamenting their predicament.

September 07 2010 at 8:18 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

In case you geniuses did not notice and apparently you didn't, We have no jobs in this country thanks to greedy companies taking advantage of Clintons lovely NAFTA idea. This was not a Republican president, or catering to the rich. It was just plain stupid! So please make sure you blame the right people!

September 07 2010 at 9:52 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply