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

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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.

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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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