Mike Rowe on ‘PR campaign for hard work’

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(CNN) — Mike Rowe says he didn’t consciously seek a cause to support — it found him.

For eight seasons and in more than 300 episodes, the host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs” met hard-working Americans doing work that no one else would do. But these were all jobs that help make the world go round.

The show, inspired by Rowe’s grandfather, a plumber, aimed to celebrate the men and women in trade jobs. But in 2008, the TV show host became in demand as a spokesman on employment issues.

“The economy went sideways, and suddenly I found myself in this weird position of being associated with hundreds of jobs in all different types of work,” says Rowe, who will host the upcoming CNN series “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”

“So reporters started calling me to get my opinion on things like the widening skills gap and crumbling infrastructure and currency evaluation and outsourcing and all sorts of stuff I’m not really qualified to talk about, but because I was in that space, I had kind of an interesting perspective, and I started to say things along the line of you know I know unemployment is headline news, but everywhere I was going on ‘Dirty Jobs,’ I saw help-wanted signs.”

Rowe says the folks featured on his show were telling him the same thing.

“They all said how hard it was to find people who were willing to retool, retrain, learn a truly useful skill and apply it,” he says.

Rowe says he realized his mission was to bring attention to this disconnect and get people talking about the skills gap. And so he created a foundation called Mike Rowe Works.

“Mike Rowe Works evolved to shine a light on a lot of jobs that for whatever reason were going unloved. Welders, steamfitters, pipe fitters. The building trades. … And so it began as kind of a PR campaign for hard work and skilled labor,” he says.

“I challenged the fans to help build a trade resource center online, and they sent thousands of links to these apprenticeship programs and scholarships and on-the-job training opportunities. So all of that came together, that worked.”

Rowe’s foundation awards what he calls “work-ethic scholarships.”

“This is money for kids who are willing to learn a truly useful skill. Get up early, stay late, work their butts off. You know? So Mike Rowe Works wants to reward the place where we think all success starts — work ethic. So that’s our scholarship plan,” he says.

Beyond scholarships, Rowe says he wants to take the stigma out of trade jobs and schools. He says people need to change their attitudes about what comes after high school.

As a youth, his guidance counselor warned him not to waste his time on a two-year school after graduation because it was beneath his “potential,” he says.

The counselor “went on to show me this poster. This crazy poster in his office. Two guys. A recent graduate holding his degree and looking very happy and optimistic next to a mechanic, head down, covered in grease. And the caption (said), ‘Work smart, not hard,’ ” Rowe recalls.

“We’ve had this false choice, you know, this idea that those careers are (for) people who really aren’t cut out for college. This implicit suggestion that they’re subordinate; well it’s not a mystery that today it’s those very careers that are lacking. You know (we) need people in those careers. That’s where the opportunities are,” he says.

Rowe says attitudes toward employment and education must catch up with the times.

“We’re still saying things like work smart, not hard. Go get your four-year degree, trillion dollars in student loans, lending money we don’t have to kids who can’t pay it back, educating them for jobs that don’t really exist anymore, it’s all twisted up.”

He says he’s not against college degrees or academic approaches, but he wants people to know they aren’t the only way — all avenues should be championed that can lead to success.

Rowe is out on the road on what he calls “a PR campaign for hard work,” bringing his message to anyone who will listen.

He talks with fans through social media and meets with government officials, even taking his views all the way to Capitol Hill.

“We need to promote an ethic of work. And there’s no way one guy or one company is going to be able to do it. It has to be a big hot mess — public, private, government, NGOs and smart alecks on the TV talking about it.”

By Rebecca Angel Baer

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