After nearly a decade of hosting the popular television show "Dirty Jobs," Mike Rowe has seen his fair share of "crap." Now, he's parlaying his reputation as a man who's not afraid to get his hands dirty into charitable efforts aimed at raising scholarship money for skilled trades students.
The Ford pitchman and narrator of the reality show "The Deadliest Catch" has launched a new initiative through his mikeroweWorks Foundation called C.R.A.P., short for "Collectibles, Rare and Precious." As part of the new program, Rowe has already auctioned off a number of the "dirty" mementos he collected from his time hosting "Dirty Jobs," including a signed piece of fossilized polar bear poop that sold for $510 in April.
Sales have continued to be brisk, Rowe said.
"All these people started bidding $500, $600, $700 for hats and T-shirts," Rowe told BusinessNewsDaily. "I got $1,200 for a pair of underpants I wore in a promo down in Australia."
Rowe autographs each item, films a short video description of each and puts it on eBay. The proceeds will benefit his foundation, which aims to help shed light on the nation's critical skilled-labor shortage. With the unemployment rate still hovering near an all-time high, Rowe said there are millions of skilled trades jobs going unfilled because there aren't enough workers trained to take them on.
"It is a freakin' disaster, and no one is talking about it," Rowe said. "No one really talks about the significance of the skills gap, because it doesn't make sense that it could exist contemporaneously with those other figures."
Rowe believes the problem stems from an overall societal belief that skilled trades jobs are somehow less admirable than other professions.
"The skills gap is a reflection of what we value, and for a couple of generations we have been valuing a very specific type of education and very specific type of job, and we have been doing that at the expense of another very specific part of our workforce," Rowe said. "These jobs are unloved."
Rowe said he still remembers a poster on his guidance counselor's wall that portrayed a smiling college graduate with a diploma on one side and a tired, wrench-wielding trades worker covered in dirt on the other. Reading the caption, "Work Smart NOT Hard," was the first time he saw work as something to try to avoid.
After his show introduced Rowe to a large cross-section of skilled trades men and women who were also millionaires and entrepreneurs, the host said he realized the nation has collectively swallowed some bad advice.
"Week after week, you could meet people who offered an alternative version of the beaten down, stereotypical blue-collar worker that we all have in the back of our head," Rowe said. "I met way more entrepreneurs than I ever would have thought and came across way more success than I ever thought we would encounter."
Despite their achievements, many of the skilled trades workers Rowe has dealt with feel their work is valued less than it was in past generations, when their parents and grandparents held the same jobs, Rowe said.
"Without really complaining so much, they all expressed in one way or another a separateness from the new economy and a separateness by the rest of the workforce, and I was really struck by that," Rowe said.
Despite not being very skilled himself, Rowe has always been passionate about the skilled trades industry. He grew up admiring his grandfather, a master tradesman by the age of 30 who built the house Rowe was born in. Rowe's elder built the house from the ground up himself, without any blueprints.
"I wanted to very much be him, but as fate or nature would have it, the [trades] gene would skip me," Rowe joked. "I mean, I am not a disaster, but you don't want me hanging the drywall."
Rowe said he developed "Dirty Jobs"as a tribute to his 92-year-old grandfather. The host never expected the show to be a hit, but after receiving 10,000 letters from viewers the first week it aired, Rowe quickly realized the show was on to something.
"That's when we knew, nobody is in this space and nobody is taking the time to simply chronicle work the way we used to do it," Rowe said.
To address the skills gap, Rowe believes a shift in thinking is necessary from the top down, and said parents and counselors need to better explain to young adults that these jobs provide value for both the employee and society at large.
"We need to somehow reinvigorate the trades by talking honestly about the opportunities that exist in these spaces," Rowe said. "From what I have seen, the trend has been to remove a whole series of viable careers because we simply don't want our kids go into the direction of a grease-covered guy holding a wrench and full of regret."
Since starting his foundation in 2008, Rowe has helped raise more than a million dollars in scholarships for skilled trades students who show high potential in two-year colleges or vocational programs. To bid on Rowe's C.R.A.P. or to learn more about the skills gap in the United States, visit the mikeroweWORKS Foundation website.