We all have dreams as children. Some hope to become rich and famous. Others have aspirations of healing people, fighting fires, or teaching. You want to change the world or at least your little corner of it. At five years old, I wanted to be a garbage man or a cocktail waitress. (I did experience the latter.) Discovery's "Dirty Jobs'" host, Mike Rowe, had a loftier goal. He wanted to be like his grandfather--a man who became a master electrician and carpenter by age 30. Unfortunately, his lack of coordination sent him on a path requiring vocal drills over power drills.
Little did he know that after years of studying music and working in entertainment, his childhood on a farm would provide ideal training for a career that begin at age 40.
Hard Working Americans Love Their Work
His current role blends the entertainment skills he honed as a QVC host (even though he got fired from it 3 times) with the hands-on skills he learned from a family of hard workers. Rowe views himself as a perpetual apprentice. Many jobs he experiences are those you don't think about someone actually doing--but someone has to. And likely, that person is having a very good time, compared to the legion of desk jockeys in America who push papers.
The show began 5 years ago, featuring jobs that were just plain gross. The guy who cleans port-a-potties or processes pig slop, for example. Now, the program takes a broader view at what might be defined as simply, "hard work." The kind of work where every day is sweaty, sticky, smelly, heavy lifting, or back-breaking. The work that is necessary for what Rowe calls "polite society." The common thread? People with dirty jobs, no matter what the job, seem to love it.
"People with dirty jobs get constant feedback on how they're doing. Whether you're a roadkill picker upper or a carpenter, every 30 minutes your environment changes and you get feedback."
Work: Not Just Fun, but Funny
Rowe does it all with a slice of humor. He tries to make each situation one that people can to relate to, even if it's a situation rarely seen. That means pebbles on a rooftop are described as sunscreen for the building. Shrink-wrapping a boat for winter is like putting a condom on it. And the furnace used in heating steel for horseshoes is like a big toaster oven--that is, until it singed his eyebrows.
"The people we meet function as experts because they are the experts at what they do. I just show up. I'm like a Christmas ham," he says. "I try more to be a guest and I try hard never to sound like I know more than I do. Very rarely if ever have people been put off by the humor we try to find in the work. It's usually a function of my own ineptitude and it gives them the chance to save the day."
Rowe not only learns the ins and outs of the work; he learns from the workers. From Les Swanson, a septic tank cleaner in Wisconsin, he learned not to follow his passion but to bring it with him. "It was 110 degrees, we were drenched in sweat, and covered in filth," he remembers. The conversation went like this:
Mike Rowe: "How long have you been doing this?"
Les Swanson: "7 years."
Mike: "What'd you do before?"
Mike: "Why did you leave?"
Les: "I got tired of dealing with other people's crap."
Work Smart AND Hard
Rowe believes you don't have to choose to work hard or work smart, like those posters say in corporate hallways. You can do both. And Rowe does. His work doesn't just happen when the cameras roll. After meeting hundreds of workers, he realized that they needed a bigger voice, a PR campaign to show that hard workers aren't just plumbers with low-slung pants. He created MikeRoweWorks.com as a community for tradespeople. The "Dirty Jobs" fame gave him a platform to recruit sponsors including Grainger, Caterpillar, Motorola, and Ford. Money poured in to create the website and a foundation is in the works. Rowe uses the site for his own voice as well, trying to make a case for trade education and occupations without sounding overly political.
"I don't know that a 4-year degree is the golden ticket anymore. I would never say anything against education," he says. "But why is there the 4 year degree and everything else is 'alternative'?"
On the jobs bill that is lumbering through Congress, Rowe doesn't take a particular political stance, but he has a viewpoint. The Mike Rowe you see on TV is the same Mike Rowe in conversation. He's chatty yet thoughtful, and definitely opinionated.
"I just don't think you can create jobs. I think you can create opportunities. I think people will avail themselves of them. People on "Dirty Jobs" span the political spectrum but they see work in the same way. If [Obama] is going to create 3 to 4 million shovel-ready jobs, it would be nice to make sure those are jobs people want and not jobs people have been disparaging for the past 30 years."
Not Even 3 Days Off a Month
Rowe may just apprentice for each of the dirty jobs he attempts. But no one can say he doesn't work hard. In 2009, he worked 330 days. On top of MikeRoweWorks.com and "Dirty Jobs," he narrates the hit Discovery show "Deadliest Catch." It's another show of hard workers working hard. Phil Harris, the boat's captain who recently lost his life, was a good friend of Rowe's. Veterans also have Rowe's ear. And time. He's involved in the Green Care for Troops program sponsored by lawn mower maker Cub Cadet. When troops are deployed, Green Care makes sure their lawns are cared for so it doesn't look like no one's home.
Home is heaven to Rowe. Inside, that is. He doesn't have a lawn at his San Francisco condo. He's a simple man. The little free time he gets is most happily spent in a big comfy leather chair with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, a book, and a glass of cabernet. He's had the same girlfriend for ten years and isn't much into stuff. "I'm low maintenance and kinda boring," he says. "It's not work if you like it and I'm having a ball."
And in case you're wondering, Rowe's grandfather did get to experience his grandson's hard work before he died in his 90s. He was blind, but he did get to listen to the first few episodes of "Dirty Jobs." Rowe said, "It amused him to no end."