'Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe Works Hard for Unemployed Vets

'Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe Works Hard for Unemployed Veterans
'Dirty Jobs' Mike Rowe Works Hard for Unemployed Veterans

While millions of Americans are searching for work, Mike Rowe has the opposite problem: As the host of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, he starts a new job every week. Over the show's six seasons, Rowe has taken on hundreds of tough trades ranging from ostrich farmer to steelworker to mosquito breeder. In his spare time, however, Rowe has begun working on one of his toughest challenges yet -- finding good work for America's veterans.

"The unemployment rate for returning servicemen is over 18%," Rowe points out. "It's a scandal, and few people write and talk about it." By comparison, the general unemployment rate is currently 9.6%, or roughly half of the veterans' rate.

Rowe's numbers are disturbing, but recent research suggests that, among some segments of the veteran population, the unemployment crisis may be even more dire. For example, for veterans aged 18 to 24, the jobless rate tops 21%, while 16.6% of nonveteran 18- to 24-year-olds are out of work. And the long downturn has made the problem worse: In 2008, for example, 14.4% of 18- to 24-year-old veterans were unemployed.

Needed: A "Reverse Boot Camp"

Added to the high unemployment rate, Rowe notes that "25% of returning servicemen are currently employed, but earning less than $22,000 a year. Compared to their civilian cohorts, these numbers are insanely, criminally high." This estimate is borne out by a 2008 report from the Department of Veterans Affairs, which suggests that 43% of returning veterans were living under the poverty line in 2007.

For many returning veterans, a lack of work and a weak support system lead to other problems. Americans for Veterans, an advocacy organization, notes that between 529,000 and 840,000 veterans are homeless at some point during each year. Between 375,000 and 600,000 of them receive no government assistance.

Rowe attributes part of the problem to a lack of training for soldiers who are leaving the military. "You've got boot camp and basic training, which is 12 to 16 weeks long. We prepare our people for this whole change of culture," notes Rowe. "But when they come out, there's no reverse boot camp."

This rapid transition from combat to Corporate America can leave soldiers feeling out-of-touch and confused. "I talked to a kid the other day: He did three tours, and within a week of getting back, he's sitting across the desk from an HR executive at Bechtel," Rowe recalls. "Eight days earlier, he was shooting people and getting shot at, and now she was asking him the same kinds of questions that she might ask any interviewee."

Getting Dirty Jobs Involved

Rowe became involved with veterans' affairs through MikeRoweWorks, a website that he founded that's dedicated to advancing the cause of blue-collar trades in America. Soon after the site was launched, Rowe heard from Michael Myatt, a retired Marine Corps major general who heads San Francisco's Veterans Memorial Campaign: "He went to MikeRoweWorks not six weeks after I launched it, called me at home, and said 'I need to talk to you immediately.'" Rowe recalls. "He's a retired two-star general – I was like, 'OK.'"

Through Myatt, Rowe became involved with other groups that work with returning soldiers. Among others, he has begun working with Matthew Caulfield, another retired Marine Corps major general who runs Helmets to Hardhats, a group that helps returning soldiers find construction jobs. "That was what I wanted to do with MikeRoweWorks initially," the host recalls. "I wanted a foundation to fund that organization, and basically help transition returning soldiers into the skilled trades."

Several issues make veterans unattractive for employers. One problem is that some soldiers can be called back into service with little recourse, especially National Guard members and reservists. Employers would then be compelled to keep the jobs open, which would leave them understaffed and forced to train temporary replacements. All other things being equal, many employers prefer to hire workers who aren't likely to face deployment.

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Another issue is confusion about combat-related illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder. According to the Pentagon, most veterans don't suffer from PTSD. And, among those that do, PTSD research by the National Institutes of Mental Health has shown that, with the help of psychotherapy and medication, most can lead "productive, fulfilling lives."

Perhaps the biggest issue for returning veterans face is confusion about their skills and whether their military abilities have a place in mainstream society. In a recent speech at the Clinton Global Initiative, First Lady Michelle Obama cited a recent survey showing that 61% of employers didn't know about the skills that returning soldiers had. To drive home the point, she asked listeners: "Are you building roads or schools or shelters? They've done that. Are you establishing health clinics? . . . Are you trying to recruit and manage teams of volunteers? That's all in a day's work for these folks."

Honoring a Sacrifice

Rowe's website now has a large veterans section that offers news, program notes and connections to job resources. He has also become involved with San Francisco's Fleet Week program and is working with Maj. Gen. Myatt on the Veterans Memorial Campaign.

Asked why he's so serious about helping veterans, the San Francisco-based Rowe notes how the military has helped his city: "After the 1906 earthquake, the military restored order. In 1987, they were here first. And when it happens again, they'll be the first ones on the job. First responders take four days after an earthquake, but the military is there in four hours."

Ultimately, Rowe notes, America owes its veterans: "These people made a sacrifice for their country, and we need to honor it. If those messages can come out with a MikeRoweWorks stamp next to them, I'd be really proud."