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'Dirty Jobs' star Mike Rowe: Skilled labor needs better PR

'Dirty Jobs' star Mike Rowe: Skilled labor needs better PR
"Dirty Jobs: Rowe'd Trip" with Mike Rowe will debut Tuesday. Photo by Troy Paff/Discovery Channel

July 7 (UPI) -- Mike Rowe says Dirty Jobs: Rowe'd Trip might be the perfect TV show for people living through the coronavirus pandemic and developing a new appreciation for how important farming, trucking, plumbing, electricity and the Internet are to civilization's survival.

"All of that stuff has an infrastructure that needs to be tended to, so finding and celebrating the people who will tend to that infrastructure was always the mission of the show," Rowe told UPI in a recent phone interview.

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"Checking back in with them from an RV as we are hurtling down Route 1 [in California], with the ocean on our right and the Redwoods to our left, was really great."

Set to debut Tuesday on the Discovery Channel, the four-episode series is a followup to Dirty Jobs, which explored various unusual, messy, occasionally dangerous and always necessary occupations. It ran eight seasons, wrapping up in 2012.

Rowe'd Trip follows Rowe and the rest of the original Dirty Jobs crew as they travel and visit old friends via video-conference technology. Each episode spotlights a specific theme, including infrastructure, innovator, isolation and animals.

"We spent a week taking a series of road trips every day to someplace kind of cool and, along the way, we reminisce, we catch up, we get into some trouble, we look back at our favorite parts from Dirty Jobs and check in with a few of the old Jobbers," Rowe said.

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Did the trip go completely as planned?

"Nothing in my life has gone completely as planned," joked Rowe, a former QVC home-shopping network host and opera singer who went on to become a beloved TV personality, bestselling author and advocate for the blue-collar trades.

"The road trip did come off more or less as I'd hoped," he added.

"The original plan was to be out in the world in March and April, shooting a new season of Dirty Jobs. I wanted to bring the show back because I thought the whole notion of essential work had once again found its way into the headlines and Dirty Jobs was the granddaddy of essential worker shows."

Asked if the trip reinforced his belief that the United States is a land of grit and ingenuity, Rowe said he is an optimist who never doubts what people can accomplish when they keep an open mind and work hard.

"The virus is a huge challenge for a lot of people, but it was checking in with our favorite Dirty Jobbers that did remind me that life never stops. Work never stops," Rowe said.

During the course of the original show, Rowe tried out about 300 "dirty jobs."

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"You spend a couple of days on a pig farm and then you move on to a wastewater treatment plant and you kind of forget about the pig farm," he said.

"But when you check back 10, 12, 15 years later with the pig farmer, you start to realize that guy has been doing that every single day since you left and he has been helping feed millions of people three times a day.

"That's something that is personally impressive to me and it is also something, I think, the country wants to be reminded of."

For years, Rowe has championed the trades and challenged the widely held opinion that a four-year college degree, frequently accompanied by a mountain of student loan debt, is the only path to a fulfilling, important and high-paying job.

"Most of what I do, in real life these days, is run a foundation called Mike Rowe Works. That evolved out of Dirty Jobs in 2008," Rowe said.

"This month, we are giving away $1 million in work-ethic scholarships to coincide with the release of Rowe'd Trip. I've been doing this every year. We try to affirmatively encourage people to learn skills and master trades that are already in demand."

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Those who have skills and are able to think outside the box are the most likely to thrive when something like the coronavirus pandemic upends their lives, he said.

"The ability to pivot and reinvent yourself right now is more important than ever, [as is] the willingness to freelance, eat what you kill, think differently about the nature of security," he said. "I also think workers who are already ensconced in skilled trades are going to have a new level of job security, too."

Teaching job skills during the pandemic when social distancing is practiced has been a challenge, he acknowledged.

"It's impacted everything. Every single vocation that I know of has had to recalibrate and pivot. It's hard to teach welding in a pandemic, but it's also hard to teach history," Rowe said.

"This pandemic doesn't care what your chosen field is, what your politics are. It doesn't go on holiday, whether you are having a beer in a bar or marching in a protest or learning to weld or learning accounting."

While unemployment has soared in recent months, many positions go unfilled because people won't consider something outside their field, feeling their happiness is tied directly to the career they have chosen.

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"It is difficult to pivot, but of greater concern has been the message of the last 40 years that says, 'You shouldn't have to pivot,'" Rowe said.

"It's not just a skills gap, it's a will gap. Skilled labor needs better PR and parents need a better understanding, I think, of the reality of pressuring a kid into signing on the dotted line and graduating with a political science degree and $90,000 in debt."

Rowe avoids explicitly discussing politics and appears equally at ease chatting with progressive Bill Maher and conservative Tucker Carlson on their talk shows about the job-skills gap, current events and whatever projects he is promoting.

He applauds President Donald Trump's recent executive order prioritizing job skills over college degrees in federal hiring, as well as the passage of the USMCA trade agreement, which is intended to bring manufacturing jobs home to North America from overseas.

During such divisive times -- with a pandemic and social justice movement rocking the country during a particularly contentious presidential election year -- it's not easy for a media personality to stay neutral.

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"It's nearly impossible," Rowe said.

"I try to stay in my lane, but I also weigh in on education and work, so, yeah, it's difficult," he said. "You can't run a foundation and weigh in on every single thing you want to, but you also can't sit on the sidelines. People are being weighed and measured these days. You have to have some kind of an opinion."

Rowe is the author of The Way I Heard It, and is the host of Facebook's Returning the Favor. His other credits include Somebody's Gotta Do It, Deadliest Catch, How the Universe Works, Ghost Hunters, The Most and Last Man Standing.

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