Acceptance of the Gentleman of Distinction Award

as delivered by

Executive Producer, TV Host, and founder of mikeroweWORKS Foundation

Mike Rowe

at the

Independent Women's Forum 2018 Annual Awards Dinner

November 14, 2018


Mike Rowe:

Good grief.  I’ll be right with you.  Thank you, you're an excellent photographer.  You would never make it on Dirty Jobs.  There was no posing, there was none of that, no second takes.  Thank you, Lori, good grief. That was so sweet. I so wish my mother was here.  

I've spent the last 72 hours with her.  My mom, as some of you may or may not know, is 80 years old, and she has written a book.  First-time author, and I've been promoting the book with my mother in New York.  We've been all over Fox for the last 48 hours. She's had this incredible experience, and I just dropped her off on the train in Baltimore, and my god, I got she and my dad off the train and we were standing there on the landing and she says tell me again what are you doing tonight?  And I said I’m going down to D.C. to get an award. She says, oh, an award. What kind of award? And I said well, the Independent Women’s Forum has decided to give me a Distinguished Gentleman Award.  She said oh, that sounds lovely. And then she gave me a hug and she turned to leave, and she stopped, and she looked back and she says tell me, what did you do to convince the women in this forum that you are distinguished?  I’m like, I don’t know, mom. You know, it’s stuff, you know. It isn’t TV shows, maybe it’s the foundation. Yes, it’s probably the foundation, she said. Have fun. And she turned and walked away and then looked back at me and said Michael, what did you do to convince the women in this forum that you are a gentleman?  I’m like mom, you’re killing me. It'll be fine. And she turns and walks away for the third time and then paused to look back and said, what are you going to talk about? And I said I don't know, I haven't really known the answer to that question since my whole misspent career actually got off the ground, but I'm sure I'll think of something.  

So, I think what I'd like to take my 10 or 12 minutes to discuss with you is the circumstance that actually brought me here this evening.  It does involve my mother, but it didn't involve her book or this most recent train ride.  It involved a phone call that I got from her back in 2001 when I was impersonating a reporter for CBS in San Francisco.  Actually, I was impersonating a host for a TV show called Evening Magazine.  Harris, I'm sure you remember evening magazine.  It comes on after the news.

My job in that capacity was to go to, you know, wineries and art openings, very nice places, and create the illusion of interest and competence where it didn't necessarily exist, and throw, too, impossibly heartwarming stories about the 3-legged dog in Marin overcoming canine kidney failure, right?  This is my job.

And one day I came back from a winery, and I was sitting in my cubicle and my mother called me on my phone and she said, Michael, you know your grandfather is not doing great and he's not going to be with us forever. He was 92 at the time. Some of you know my grandad, not by name, his name was Carl Noble, but when I describe him I daresay some of you will nod in recognition.  He only went to the 7th grade, dropped out to go to work, but by the time he was 30, he was an electrical contractor, and a plumber, and a steamfitter, and a pipefitter, and a welder.  Carl Noble could and did build a house without a blueprint. He had the chip, right? He could take this watch off and spread out all the parts blindfolded, and he could put it back together again.  He was that guy. And he was heroic in his day.  

Today, sadly, he'd be largely invisible, but back in 2001 he was just my pop.  And he was old, and he was dying, and my mother called to say wouldn’t it be terrific, Michael, if your grandfather could turn on the TV before he dies and see you doing something that looked like work.  Scout’s honor. That’s my mom. But she was right.

So, I went into my boss's office and I said, why does Evening Magazine always have to be hosted from a winery, or a restaurant, or, you know, an art opening, why can't it be hosted from a construction site, or a factory floor, or a sewer?  He said, you want to host Evening Magazine from a sewer?  I said why not? He said, I got 40 people watching this stupid show, who gives a crap, host it wherever you want.  

So, I called my cameraman and I spent the next day filming the interior of a sewer in San Francisco and normally when I'm invited to speak at events like this, Heather, you booked the Dirty Jobs guy to talk during dinner.  Bold move. I'm not going to drag you through the sewer the way I normally would, I'll just tell you that I spent 6 hours down there with a sewer inspector and I had what the Greeks call a peripeteia.  I realized everything I thought I knew about my own career was wrong, I had been impersonating a host for 13 years for just about every network there was, and when I saw the footage of the giant rat that appeared on my shoulder, and the roaches that overwhelmed me, and the exploding laterals that covered me with future food, all of these things looked tremendously awful and wonderful on television.  

And I knew my granddad would be very proud, and I cut together a segment that I knew would get me fired, and it did.  It's okay. It got me here. But what happened to me – what happened in the sewers of San Francisco gave me permission to shop that videotape all over Hollywood, and I heard no in every way you can hear no, except from the Discovery Channel.  

They said well, it's a talk show in a sewer, isn't it?  I said, basically. And they said, we'll give it a try. They changed the name from Somebody's Got to Do It to Dirty Jobs, and that was in 2003 when all that finally happened.  And since then – you guys will clap for anything, that's terrific.  Thank you.

Since then, I've done 300 of these jobs, I’ve shot for 10 years, half a dozen times in every state in my role as a quasi-host, I really functioned as an apprentice.  Worked shoulder-to-shoulder with regular people who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us, and against some very long odds, by 2008 it was the number one show on cable, and it launched, I don't know, 33 other similar shows, and it became a thing, and then some of you might recall our economy had a little hiccup, and things got weird.  It got weird for everybody in this room, but it got especially weird for me, because suddenly I was getting phone calls from The Wall Street Journal and other serious publications for my take on things like the jobs report.  

Now, I'm not qualified to talk about jobs, but for the fact that I tried to do a show that wouldn't make my grandfather throw his Budweiser at the TV set, and after 5 years of doing it, people knew me.  They knew who I was and they knew what I did. But suddenly I'm getting calls to discuss what appear to be two seemingly dichotomous data points. I refer to rising unemployment in 2009, and the widening skills gap, and the financial reporter for The Wall Street Journal said might you have an opinion as to why these two seemingly dichotomous data-points appear to be unfolding contemporaneously.  

I was castrating lambs at the time in Craig, Colorado.  Do you know who this is? Anyway, he said you appear to have an interesting perspective on work and I was wondering if you really have a thought as to why, with 10 and 11% unemployment in our country, we have two-and-a-half million jobs that nobody seems to want.  And I said, well, as matter fact I do have a theory, and I hopped on my soapbox while the lambs were waiting, and stood there on my cell phone and told this financial reporter that in my opinion our country had waged a Cold War on the traditional notions of work.  I further postulated that our Cold War included a series of completely absurd portrayals of work on television along with a completely ridiculous number of best sellers currently on the New York Times list that promise success and happiness in maybe 4 hours a week instead of 40.  I went on and on about all the things that I thought had left us in a state of profound disconnectedness.

I also talked about the amount of student debt juxtaposed to the amount of opportunity.  I talked about, as Heather and I just discussed, guidance counselors who were getting compensated for encouraging kids to go to college but not any other kind of educational pursuit.  I talked about the stigmas, and the stereotypes, and the myths, and the misperceptions that were fueling a skills gap back in 2009 to the tune of 2.3 million jobs. Long story short, the reporter said, well, what are you going to do about it?  I’m like well I’m hosting a show and I’m castrating lambs, that’s something, right? He said it sounds like you actually give a damn. What are you going to do about it. So, I went back to my journals, which I kept meticulously in those days, and looked at all the things I'd heard from all the people I had featured on the show, small business owners mostly, and what I heard again and again, over and over, was the same fundamental challenge, whether it was a small business or a large one, the challenge of finding people who were willing to show up early, stay late, and learn a skill that was actually in demand.  

The business of recruitment was becoming an incredibly difficult thing even with unemployment going through the roof, everywhere I went on that show, what I saw were help wanted signs. And so, I decided that the least I could do for the industries that had allowed me to prosper, and for the grandfather that allowed my life to exist, was to shine a light on some opportunities that typically go ignored.  

As Lori explained, that foundation is called Mike Rowe Works, and it started as a PR campaign.  If Dirty Jobs has a legacy, I hope that'll be it.  But it has also evolved into a scholarship fund.  We are modest. Today, so far, we've raised between five and six million dollars, and we've given it away in the form of work ethic scholarships.  

And this is really why I wanted to come here tonight, along with the great award, I want to leave you with some thoughts on work ethic.  The skills gap thing today is not really a mystery, it's a reflection of what we value, and today that skills Gap is closer to 7 million, not 2.3.  7 million jobs exist right now that for whatever reason we can't seem to get people excited about.  

Clearly, I am making the problem worse, but the opportunity is real, even at a time when we hear again and again that opportunity is dead everywhere we look, every employer I talk to, and I'm in business with a lot, they talk over and over about the difficulty of elevating the skilled trades.  So, we award work ethic scholarships at Mike Rowe Works because the scholarship world has plenty of wonderful funds that reward academic achievement, and many terrific funds that reward athletic achievement, and many fabulous funds that reward talent, but who is affirmatively looking to award work ethic?  It's a short list.

I know I'm not the only one on it, but the women in my life who came with me tonight, aside for my mom, Jade Estrada and Mary Sullivan who run my foundation, know firsthand just how difficult it is to recruit in my little world.  And we know collectively how difficult it must be to recruit in your world. So, we award these scholarships to people who we believe deserve them. Again, they're modest. $2,000 can make all the difference in the world for a welding certification, four or five grand for a plumbing certification, the jobs that my granddad had growing up that we realized at the time were the very definition of our economy have now become so marginalized that we have to set aside an entire chunk of money and a whole different scholarship plan simply to call attention to the fact that the opportunities in question are indeed alive and well.  

I'm here tonight to tell you something you probably already believe.  Those opportunities are out there, but it's not enough to simply say it.  We need to do something affirmative to change the conversation that's going on in this country and reimagine, as I said to you, Heather, reimagine the definition of what a good job means in 2018.  This is key.  

My mom was right.  I wasn't sure what I was going to say tonight, but, Heather, our conversation just now made it very, very clear.  What we need to do in our country is change the way people think about work, we have to change the perceptions, the misperceptions, the myths, the stereotypes, and the stigmas that are affirmatively keeping millions of kids in this generation from pursuing the millions of opportunities currently in the offing.  We have to do it.  

We have to challenge the guidance counselor’s typical advice, we have to challenge the idea that having something better for our kids means having something better than Silicon Valley.  

The opportunities that exist are the opportunities we have to challenge.  Tammy, thank you for the polite applause, but I'm not really looking for it.  I'll take it. This is important. This shouldn't be political, but it is.

When you talk about why 7 million jobs are empty, it is upsetting to people who are convinced that opportunity is dead.  It forces us to look at our country through a different kind of lens. It forces us to think about why so much opportunity is sitting there.  

Now, the politics will make it easy, right?  My friends on the Left tell me that that opportunity exists because employers are greedy and rapacious.  My friends on the Right tell me that opportunity exists because people are fundamentally lazy.

I think they both miss the point.  I think these opportunities exist today because we have done a lousy job of promoting them.  We have to talk differently about work.

Final thought: In 1953, our country had a dysfunctional relationship with litter, way before green, right?  We had picnics and we left all our crap behind, we’d throw it out the window. It didn't matter. There was no stigma attached with littering back in the forties and fifties.  Something had to happen to change our collective consciousness about this problem. What happened was that weeping Indian who stood by the side of the road, you remember, a big old tear coming down his face, what happened was Woodsy the owl and Smokey the bear, and a lot of other famous iconography, right, that came in and it had an unbelievable effect on the way people act.  

Now, it took a while.  It took about 15 years, but by every measurable demonstrable metric, the Keep America Beautiful campaign affirmatively changed America's relationship with littering.  It didn't totally correct it, but it changed it. That consortium that was formed in 1953 had a government component, it had private business, and it had concerned citizens.  And they came together and they raised money, and they put it against effective PR.

Not the big bowl of warm milk that passes for PR today, not the typical very important message, right?  That's noise. That's white noise. No one listens to that. They put their money behind PR that worked, and as a result, our country's dysfunctional relationship with litter changed.  

Today we have a dysfunctional relationship with work.  We need to do – we need our crying Indian. We need new messages.  We need a completely different attitude that will impact our view not just of work, but of education.  We need to think about our language. Higher education is over here. Higher education is good, but what's over here?  Now, we don't call it lower education, because that would just be crazy. We call it alternative education. Kids not good enough to make it to the four-year degree?  Well, we have a lovely wrench over here for him or her. Won't that be nice? We do this in a thousand different ways. We do it over and over, and over again.

We have to look at our language, we have to look at our messages, we need better PR, we need to tell better stories of men and women who master a trade and then go on to succeed.

We have to put these people on a poster. We have to celebrate them. We don't need American idols, we need American icons. Icons of work.

So, the bad news is we're never going to close the skills gap, it’s not going to happen. It's just not in our DNA. We're pushing the rock up the hill in our own Sisyphean way. We're tilting at windmills in our own quixotic way.

The country needs a peripeteia.  We need to stop talking about education in a cookie-cutter fashion the leaves us with no choice but to conclude the best path for the most people is the most expensive path.  

Friends this is nuts.  It has to stop.

You mentioned statistics, and you are right, Tammy, they will put a glass eye to sleep after a while, but you can't ignore them, ultimately.  We have 1.5 trillion dollars of student loans on the books right now. We have 7 million jobs available that for whatever reason people aren't excited about.  75% of those available jobs don't require a 4-year degree. They require training.

This is what my little foundation is doing.  We need more little foundations doing something similar.  

We need to stop lending money that we don't have to kids who will never be able to pay it back, to train them for jobs that don't exist anymore.  We have to stop telling kids to blindly follow their passion and show them the undeniable truth of the opportunities that exist, and then we need to challenge them.  We need to challenge them to be passionate about those opportunities.  That was the big overarching message of Dirty Jobs.  Mostly it was a TV show where toilets blow up and I had some misadventures in animal husbandry but the message of Dirty Jobs, the message that the headlines ultimately caught up to, was there is dignity in all work, opportunity is alive and well, and those two things I know for a fact that the Independent Women's Forum knows.  

You understand the value of attitude, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and work ethic.  That's why Mary, and Jade, and I are here.  Why my mother didn't make it remains a great mystery, but I will give her your collective regards along with my sincere thanks for having me.  This is terrific. Have a wonderful evening.