What’s life like for Mike Rowe without a network television show?
Since CNN dropped Somebody’s Gotta Do It, Rowe has had his privacy violated by a drone, the former host of Dirty Jobs survived the rumors of his own death swirling about the internet, and in the home stretch of an ugly presidential election, he worries more than ever about unemployment, the skills gap, and a widespread loss of meaning in American life.
Yet Rowe himself remains more popular than ever. Days after Rowe read a letter from his mother detailing how she lost her purse at Wal-Mart, the post went hyperviral. It was seen by over 100 million people – “a third of the country!” he exclaims. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” Rowe tells Reason TV, “I’ve talked to people at Facebook who said they’ve never seen anything like it.”
Rowe has also found a way to turn C.R.A.P – that’s Collectibles, Rare and Precious – into philanthropy. His auction of a swanky Trump Tower bathrobe, signed by The Donald himself, fetched a cool $16,000 on eBay. The money then trickled down from the alleged billionaire to The Mike Rowe Works Foundation, which funds “work ethic scholarships” that provide out-of-luck workers with valuable skills for the modern economy.
Nick Gillespie caught up with Mike Rowe in Nashville, Tennessee to chat about his affection for the Second Amendment, his adventures in podcasting, the 2016 election, the secret to extracting semen from a prize racehorse, and more.
Produced by Todd Krainin. Hosted by Nick Gillespie. Cameras by Paul Detrick and Krainin.
0:00 – Teaser.
0:45 – Intro.
1:05 – Naked Mike Rowe and a Mossberg 500 vs. a drone.
7:39 – What happened to Somebody’s Gotta Do It?
11:34 – Have we lost touch with the important things in life?
15:50 – Work ethic scholarships.
18:56 – How to extract semen from a prize racehorse.
21:45 – Donald Trump’s robe
23:33 – Thoughts on free trade.
31:02 – Thoughts on occupational licensure.
34:50 – The false choices of American life.
36:30 – The secret to a successful career: Love the hard work.
40:05 – The Way I Heard It and a massively popular letter from Rowe’s mother.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: This is a rush transcript. Check against video for accuracy.
Nick Gillespie Hi, I’m Nick Gillespie with Reason TV and we are sitting down with Mike Rowe of the Mike Rowe Works Foundation and of recently of Somebody’s Gotta Do It and Dirty Jobs. Mike Rowe, thanks for talking to Reason TV.
Mike Rowe Last time I saw you, you were wearing that same jacket and I was wearing this same hat.
Gillespie Well there you go. What goes around comes around. Now, the two headlines that you are most famous for most recently are ‘Naked Mike Rowe’ and ‘Mike Rowe Dead’ What uh why were you naked and how did that lead to you being dead?
Rowe Well it’s a big week. I was uh in the midst of what I thought was some bizarre gardening dream and in the dream uh a bumblebee was in my ear. And when I awakened I realized A: It wasn’t a dream and B: It wasn’t a bee. But there was a buzzing sound and it was coming from the other side of my bedroom window and I leapt from the bed in what I described as my favorite pair of imaginary pajamas. And I pulled the drapes aside and there was a camera hovering, not in mid air, but from the belly of a drone and the drone was making this horrible buzzing sound. And I was standing there in my horrible nakedness not fully awake but sentient enough to know that something had to be done. So I retreated to the uh bed, pulled the Mossberg 500 from underneath.
Gillespie And, by the way, do you get a uh is that a product placement?
Rowe It’s not. I just like the way I feel when I say Mossberg 500. It’s a great shotgun. I keep it locked and loaded and the familiar chunk-chunk is very gratifying.
Gillespie Now, this is in San Francisco.
Rowe It is.
Gillespie So is that legal to have a locked and loaded shotgun?
Rowe It’s it’s it’s it’s hard to know. Uh but uh probably not.
Gillespie Okay. So, now you’re naked with a shotgun. And the drone.
Rowe Right. So, so technically not naked. You know? Clothed in the security that can only come from the Mossberg 500.
Gillespie And I’m assuming like most gun owners you’re, now you’re fully erect as well, right?
Rowe Well, naturally.
Gillespie Because that’s- the gun is an extension?
Rowe Well- partially. And to be fair it’s very difficult to tell, in my case, the difference between me fully erect and a Mossberg 500. In whatever state I happen to be in, I uh I ran down the stairs, with the gun out onto the deck and I looked up to where I had last seen the drone. And the thing had actually hovered in a little closer to the window. So I had a great shot, blue skies, totally clear. I tilted up just as the GoPro on the drone tilted down and I saw the red light blinking which immediately told me it’s recording and there’s a chip in that camera. But what I didn’t know is is the drone operator, some worthless little pervert within a mile of me looking at a monitor, is he recording it there as well? And this all goes through the reptilian part of your brain very very quickly, you know? But all you can really think of is ‘if I pull that trigger and revel in the satisfying tinkle of cheap plastic falling down onto the deck uh is all of it gonna pop up on the internet, you know, moment later?’ So I- I froze and the drone flew away and I got one shot of it from my iPhone and I posted that and shared the story.
Gillespie On your Facebook page, yeah. So, has the footage has not surfaced as of yet?
Rowe Not to my knowledge uhm I’m fairly sure I’ll know about it when it does.
Gillespie We will be getting our offer to you to own the footage probably with 30 to 40 minutes, so, you know, expect that.
Rowe Well thank you. I’ll direct you to TMZ where I’m sure a healthy bidding war will, will unfold.
Gillespie So, how is it- what does that feel like? Because uh, you know, we’re Libertarians and we kind of like transparency but then this is also obviously an invasion of privacy. uh I mean what- where do you, you know, and that’s a good job right? So somebody whose workin’ that thing that’s a job that uh, you know, they have so.
Rowe Sure. Look I, I think the reason that goofy little post was shared, you know, millions of times uh was because, on the one hand, you know, it’s a naked guy with a shotgun in San Francisco so there’s something there. uh But, but we’re also talking about this weird collision of privacy and technology and second amendment and all these things that happen to be in the headlines, it seems, on a fairly regular basis.
Gillespie Are you- you’re a big second amendment guy? or uh you uh like guns?
Rowe I’m a fan of the second amendment. I’m a fan of the bill of rights. uhm I’ve grown up with guns, I’ve always had guns. I’m- I’m not an NRA guy uhm not because I have anything against them, just because I’m not- I’m not much of a joiner.
Gillespie uh what is it- something that as a gun owner or a life long gun user you can tell someone like me or other people who are uncomfortable about guns that would make us feel more comfortable about them?
Rowe I don’t have a smart answer. But I will say that it’s interesting how you’re either in the NRA or you’re not. And I think that’s a false division. I think the country is full of a lot of false divisions right now. And I think there are a lot of people, actually, like me who- who aren’t a member of the NRA but do own a gun who happen to not be psycho killers and criminals. uh and those people I don’t- I think it’s easier to ignore them.
Gillespie uh Well, hopefully, right? I mean, the psycho killers get all the attention right?
Rowe Or the nude guy who used to have a TV show with a shotgun on a deck.
Gillespie So you- I mean that lead to the naked Mike Rowe headlines and then there was after that, partly because you were holding a gun there were these- this rash of Mike Rowe dead headlines and you talk a little bit about that on your Facebook page.
Gillespie I mean they’re still coming up, probably. What is it like to have your death announced? and and not to be a South American dictator where, you know, ‘oh my god I better not get up this morning.’
Rowe uhm It’s- this’ll sound odd but it’s it’s it’s weirdly flattering. You know? Because- because what comes back over the net is a massive amount of concern and curiosity from friends and family. And I don’t wish to manipulate either group but in Facebook land, you know, you got four million friends. So people are just rushing to find out, you know, is there any truth to this? And then you get to like bathe in their relief, right? Because ‘no, no I’m alive!’ and most of all you get to quote Twain if, in fact, he ever said it. But-
Gillespie Which is that the rumors of- or the news of-
Rowe Reports of my death have been grossly exaggerated.
Gillespie Did you lose any friends over this? Because they finally said what they thought about you all along?
Rowe You mean-
Gillespie You know that posed to your Facebook page ‘I am glad he’s dead.’
Rowe ‘He’s dead, about time.’ No uh but the cruelest comments were ‘hm I thought he was gone years ago.’
Gillespie Which I guess was about F Scott Fitzgerald. That’s what was said about- ‘I thought he died years ago.’
Rowe That that- That’s done.
Gillespie Well, speaking of which uh your show on CNN ‘Somebody’s Gotta Do It’ which was similar to Dirty Jobs where you went and looked at hobbies and other tasks that people did, sometimes in extreme ways. uh You you- uh worked on an aquatic show in, in Vegas. You uh hung out with the goat cheese- the goat cheese queen of Humboldt County California. You did another water ballet because you’re a closet water ballet fan. That is now gone off the air uh that has ended at CNN.
Rowe It has.
Gillespie uhm Why did it end?
Rowe The good news is it hasn’t ended, it ended on CNN, we shot season four, it’s about to re-emerge somewhere else. uhm What happened uh was the election, and riots, and terrorism and natural disasters and all the trouble in the world. And, you know, I appreciate CNN giving me an hour of prime time to tell light-hearted stories about people who I think are worth knowing. But it’s one thing to compete with everything else on TV, it’s another thing to compete with all the trouble in the world. Because, you know, you don’t want to be… Something bad happens somewhere and people go to CNN, you don’t wanna see a smart aleck in- investigating the low ride culture or making cheese in Humboldt County. Right? with his tongue in his cheek. uhm On the other hand, if you’re me, and you tell four million people ‘hey, you know, Tuesday nights nine o’clock’ and I’m not on because, you know, Cuba just opened up. Okay. So it’s- it was an experiment and to some degree it’s working for some shows. But Bourdain, who’s doing a fabulous show is not, you know, he’s not doing- he’s not taking a light hearted look at anonymous people you should know. He’s doing video essays and reportage of foreign countries. And, actually, turn the sound down, it looks a lot like a CNN report. So it fits, you know? I- I just stuck out.
Gillespie Who were the people that we should know? I uh you know, what what- obviously they do all sorts of different things, I mean, this is uh you’re famous for your sheep castration uh stories of course.
Rowe People should know that guy.
Gillespie Yeah the- people should know that uh you know, if you know anything coming out of college you should know how to use your mouth to castrate sheep, right? uh but you know I mean they’re you- you talk to a lot of people. Guys who work in septic tanks, guys who work in sewers, guys who work, you now, hanging from wires on bridges. What do the people that we should know, that you think we- Americans should know have in common?
Rowe Well I think the most honest thing I ever wrote uh was on a lunch bag before the first episode of Dirty Jobs. The president of Discovery at the time said the show needs a mission statement. And I was like ‘Oh God. A mission statement? Really?’ I mean you put a glass eye to sleep with these things, you know? They’re just so earnest and dreadful. But she was right and what I wrote was ‘My name is Mike Rowe, this is my job. I explore the country looking for people who aren’t afraid to get dirty. Hard working men and women who do the kinds of jobs that make civilized life possible for the rest of us.’ Dirty Jobs was about me finding those people, because I believe you should know them. Somebody’s Gotta Do it was slightly different. That was a show about people who I think you should know because they wake up agitated. They wake up convinced that there’s a better mouse trap or they’re Don Quixote, they’re tilting at windmills, or they’re Sisyphus pushing some rock up a hill and they’re doing a thing because they’re compelled to do it. And those people I think are interesting for a slightly different reason.
Gillespie And these are healthy obsessions, right?
Rowe That’s right.
Gillespie I mean this is you- It’s not the psycho killer.
Gillespie Maybe that’s season fifteen is serial killers-
Rowe We’re saving that for sweeps. Serial killers you should have over for dinner.
Gillespie People with compulsions. uhm What has happened, like, have we become so disconnected whether it’s from people who have, you know, a kind of compulsion or a healthy obsession of ‘I wanna do this. This is my passion project. Or the people who do work, the hidden work, that makes civilization fun and nice and clean and- and just wonderful. Have we lost touch with that in our society and if we have in these uh these two dimensions, what- what’s the cause of that?
Rowe I think the irony of the current level of disconnectedness uh is directly the result of the current level of connectedness. I think, for the first time in history, you and I are walking around with the, with a network in our pockets, you know. It’s not a phone or a camera. It’s a network, we can broadcast, we can- we we’re more connected today than we ever have been in what feels to me like a superficial way. But at the same time, if there was some sort of graph that would indicate this I think we would see a growing disconnect between the average person and an understanding of where our food comes from. Where our energy comes from.
Gillespie And I know with food you’ve talked about this. It’s something like one percent or one and a half percent of Americans are involved in the producing of food. So, most of us, it just shows up in the supermarkets, it shows up on our plates.
Rowe It’s magic.
Rowe It’s magic. Look, the modern agriculture is nothing short of miraculous. But the work that’s still done in areas like artificial insemination and basic animal husbandry is completely alien to most people. So the only way you feed 300 million people three times a day is through a marvel of effectiveness and efficiency. And, so the modern farmer is heroic and the modern farmer has an image problem. Because the average person addicted to chewing and swallowing still sees them as Buck Owens or Roy Clarke in Hee Haw playin’ a banjo and wearin’ overalls and clearin’ the south 40. So the same- the same thing that has made farming difficult, well, the military faces it, you know? One and a half percent of people serve in the armed forces. uhm The- the number of tradesmen working right now is actually very very small relative to the entire population. And so, we’re disconnected, in my opinion, from things like food, energy, the prevailing definition of a good job. uh The most fundamental things are infrastructure, uh even as we become uber-connected.
Rowe To Uber. Of course I mean it’s- it’s- it’s just beco- it’s fascinating to me and clearly that’s the price. The unintended price we’re paying of this amazing level of connectedness is this fundamental decoupling from what’s really important.
Gillespie Do you think the work ethic suffers when uh because we’re taking for granted all of the marvels of the world that, you know, we no longer live in a world where, if you flip a switch, the lights don’t come on or it shorts out and shocks you?
Rowe The way I would say it is we no longer live in a world where, when you flick the switch, and the lights do come on, your initial feeling isn’t one of wonder. There is no initial feeling, you know? The only feeling that comes is when you flick the switch and lights don’t come on. And then isn’t it amazing how quickly we’re outraged, you know? When we flush the toilet and the crap doesn’t go away? Wha- What? What? You know? The miracle of modern plumbing, the miracle of affordable electricity, all these things now we’re just not sufficiently gobsmacked and when we lose our sense of wonder and our basic appreciation that sets the ground work for the eventual disconnect that leads to vocational education vanishing from high school, a widening skills gap contemporaneous with spiking unemployment and all of these seemingly dichotomous things that leave people scratching their heads. My foundation takes the position that these things aren’t problems, these are symptoms of a larger wrestling and confusion with what a good job is.
Gillespie So talk about the work ethic scholarships in particular. Uh what- what uh- what is, what symptom, what underlying cause is that trying to address? What symptom is it treating?
Rowe I think that, in the same way certain people believe romantic happiness will only happen when you locate your soulmate, I think a lot of people today believe that vocational happiness will only occur when you find your dream job. I th- I think that’s nonsense. uhm I also think it’s self-defeating because it just, you know, if you identify the existence of the proximate cause of joy and then build giant barriers between you and it you just made it very difficult to feel good. So I think a lot of people have done that and I think… I think work ethic suffers as a result because it’s been replaced by this search ethic, right? I’m on the search for the thing that will bring me joy as opposed to ‘no no it doesn’t matter what the job is. You wake up early, you stay late, you take your bite of the crap sandwich, you make yourself indispensable, you master your job and then through pluck and insistence and goodwill and humor you run the joint in a year and a half.’ I still believe that can happen. And on Dirty Jobs I met a lot of people who proved it. So yeah, there’s a bit of earnest Horatio Alger old man next door ‘get off my lawn’ coming from my foundation. But it’s best, I think, embodied in the SWEAT pledge, you know? Which was a product-
Gillespie And that’s an acronym. So it’s not a- it’s not a pledge, it’s not like a blood oath, right? It’s a-
Rowe No. No, it stands for Skills and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo. And it was the product of a six pack of Lagunitas and careful reflection on my part on two things: the boy scout law
Gillespie And you are an Eagle scout?
Rowe Yeah. And the uh, the twelve step recovery process from Alcoholics Anonymous. And I’m- and I’m not a member of AA but I love the idea that there’s a twelve step process that might be applied to ideas of personal responsibility and, and personal accountability and work ethic.
Gillespie And you guys have, at this point, you’ve given out something like four million dollars and what- what does that money go to? and where do you get it from?
Rowe The money comes primarily from me auctioning off the crap in my garage.
Gillespie And crap is also an acronym?
Rowe -also and acronym. It’s important to always have acronyms, Nick. CRAP stands for Collectables Rare and Precious. So the idea was, my garage is just full of stuff. Filthy mementoes from my misspent career and I take these mementoes and I autograph them and I try and tell an amusing story. And in the same way Jerry Luis would hope to uh guilt you to giving money during a telethon by some sort of performance, I aim to raise money by entertaining you with a tale.
Gillespie Talk- what is the uh most disgusting item that you’ve auctioned off?
Rowe Well, depending on who you ask I just got sixteen grand for an autographed Donald Trump bathrobe.
Gillespie I was going to bring that up. But, so there’s that. But then talk about the semen.
Rowe Okay. uhm, I collected uh semen uh I’ve collected semen from many many many many many creatures.
Gillespie Well, somebody’s gotta do it, right?
Rowe It has to be done. And uh from a prize racehorse at a place called Babcock Ranch in Texas. And I collected it with the help of an artificial vagina and a baby bottle and uh-
Gillespie You know when I hear the story usually there’s a guy playing a whorehouse piano, but-
Rowe Do we have one of those? Do you guys play the piano? uhm, yeah, you know, the horse is up on a pommel horse, literally, you know. Looking at what I can only imagine is some video of black beauty or something. And- and I-
Gillespie The Secret of Roan Inish.
Rowe Misty of Chincoteague. I got a bicycle helmet on, alright? I look like a giant PEZ dispenser. And I’m holding what appears to be a water bottle, uh, which is an artificial vagina and a baby bottle dangling from the end. So I approach the creature who, et I mean it’s in flagrante delicto right? And I guide him into the artificial vagina and hand on as he expresses himself as only a one ton animal can do in the heat of the moment. And his semen fills the baby bottle and in the baby bottle is a- is a plastic container that houses it and they use that, usually, to- to uh fill many pipettes which are subsequently injected into the mares, the brood mares. uhm They let me keep this particular bottle and I had it for many years in my apartment. It sat on the edge of the mantle and in the afternoon, Nick, the sun would come through and it would hit it usually between four and four thirty in a way that would-
Gillespie The golden hour.
Rowe It w- It was so beautiful, the way it uh like a prism, right? It was a semen inspired prism and these little rainbows, these semen rainbows would fill my living room. It was horrible. One year we had it on the Christmas tree, just because. Anyway I auctioned that off for many thousands of dollars.
Gillespie Do you uh think that uh I mean that to be serious for a minute. Do you think that we’ve lost the wonder when we encounter artificial vaginas? Where’s the- you know, we just get mad when they don’t work.
Rowe Yeah, I mean, it’s very very frustrating uh to come home after a long day knowing that the artificial vagina you’ve been thinking of all day is waiting for you and then to suddenly find it’s not. That level of disappointment…
Gillespie So uh the robe from Donald Trump, you got 16 thousand 500 dollars for.
Rowe There’s no accounting for taste. Yeah uhm what happened was I announced the end of Somebody’s Gotta Do It on CNN and I blamed Bernie, Hillary and Donald for sucking up all the bandwidth. Which is actually kinda true. And then in a PS to that post I said ‘Listen: if you guys feel guilty for running me off the news network as surely you must uh why don’t you cough up something that I can auction off for my foundation?’ and I said ‘Bernie, send me one of those crappy blazers that rumpled things you wear.’
Gillespie Hillary you- she could just cough into a napkin.
Rowe Actually I invited her to send a pantsuit. I even said I’d model it if she did. And to Donald I said ‘send me one of your robes.’ Because, a couple weeks earlier, I auctioned off a ratty old robe I’d stolen from an overpriced spa in northern California and got like seven or eight grand for it.
Gillespie And this is why you were naked when you went out to shoot down the drone.
Rowe I was robeless, that’s right. I simply did not have time to dress for my malfeasance. But uh, but of the three Donald’s people got back immediately and they said ‘what do you want again?’ and I said ‘send me a robe from the Trump tower.’ and they said ‘no problem’ and I said ‘and get him to sign it.’ and they said ‘we’ll run it by him.’ Two days later it showed up, signed. So, look, say what you will about the guy he- he understands the importance of a story and he wasn’t gonna get in his own way. So he sent me the robe, I put the robe on, probably lost a million friends because there I am wearing Donald’s robe. But I probably gained a million too. And, you know, the bidding went up to sixteen grand very quickly, we sent it out, we used that money for Work Ethic Scholarships, boom, Bob’s your uncle.
Gillespie You- you’re not going to endorse anybody for president but how do you see the politics of the moment this is, you know, the craziest election. Do you worry about the direction of the country beyond these questions about work ethic and the mismatch between jobs, available jobs, and training for jobs. uhm Bernie or rather Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are both very protectionist.
Gillespie They talk a lot about how trade deals are bad. How does that play into your world view about trad- or jobs that are here and whatnot as-
Rowe I mean, I have a personal opinion on it but the honest, and I think better, answer is ‘How do you want to set the table?’ Are we going to set the table in a way that fundamentally advantages the American consumer? or are we gonna set it in a way that fundamentally advantages the American worker? And it’s not a rhetorical question, it’s already been asked and we’ve already answered it. We’ve set the table in a way that benefits the consumer and I think we’ve done it because there are more consumers than workers. All workers are consumers, right? Not all consumers are workers. So we’re in the global economy, you must be this tall to get on the ride and there’s no negotiating. We’re in it right now. So, you know, that’s the bargain we’ve made and we’re right now realizing that maybe, you know, maybe that wasn’t the table we wanted to set after all. But I don’t know how you put the poop back in the goose, you know? we either want to buy our Fords for as little money as possible-
Gillespie Then again another product placement, right?
Rowe I’m done with Ford. They’re done with me. But it might come back around so I’m not gonna say anything too nasty. No, look I- I’ve- I’ve driven Fords all my life and I was proud to speak on their behalf for a few years but, you know, when Donald says he’s gonna charge 35% more for a Ford that’s made in Mexico the crowd goes wild. And, I get it, it sounds pretty good, let’s level stuff out, why not?
Gillespie But that does mean that we’re gonna be paying 35% more either because it’s tax coming in from Mexico or it costs much more to make here.
Rowe The brain tends to solve the problem it looks at. And when we’re just looking at how to better manufacturing for workers, obviously- obviously raise those tariffs, get those factories back here, problem solved. But there’s always an unintended consequence. It’s the same kind of thinking that says ‘look we all want to see people make a living wage, we all want to see people make ends meet, so let’s just raise that minimum wage. Boom! Problem solved. Nobody wants to see people thrown out of their apartment, nobody wants to see hard working people displaced so let’s control the rent.
Gillespie You’re in your fifties, you remember uh you know both because of your personal story but just ’cause of the time you lived in, you remember periods where unemployment was double digits, uh, you know where inflation was out of control, where the economy looked pretty bleak. uhm Do you think millennials are facing anything like you might have faced in your, you know, in your teen years, or what the world looked like or when you were their age. What- you know, do they have a future? and is it better than when you grew up in? or what has to happen to kinda make things better?
Rowe Yeah that’s a- that’s a great macro question. uhm My answer is micro, you know, uhm my foundation’s called Mike Rowe Works because I really, I’m not smart enough to speak that holistically. But I take great comfort in finding an individual who is willing to look at the landscape however bleak and see opportunity. And I just think that that’s always been for sale in good times and bad and the first time, well not the first time, but the first time as an adult that I- that I was really confronted by that was in late 2008 on Dirty Jobs when the headlines all across the country were screaming double digit unemployment and every major news story and every major news cast started with the number of people out of work and everywhere I went on the show, Nick, every- every state, all I saw were help wanted signs. And so, there was this other narrative going on in the country that had to do with the inability to find people who were willing to learn a skill that was actually in demand and I was fascinated by how little that got reported. So 2008 the skills gap was officially 2.3 million jobs, today it’s 5.8 million.
Gillespie And that means that these are jobs that are available, you know, that nobody’s applying for or nobody’s qualified for.
Rowe Where nobody’s getting hired for, right? It does- it gets political and I never mean it to. But it- it’s impossible to not wind up in a political conversation when one side is saying ‘look at all these people who aren’t working’ and the other side is saying ‘look at all these jobs we can’t fill.’ A reasonable person has to say ‘Why? What, What’s the problem? Is it really a lack of skill? could it be a lack of will? is it uh is it a geography problem? Is it really a training problem? Is it a money problem? Is it an education problem?’ And just, you know, the left will tell you that the reason these jobs are unfilled is because these greedy rapacious capitalists simply aren’t paying enough and the right will tell you the reason these jobs aren’t filled is because these lazy good for nothing lay-abouts just don’t have the work ethic required, or the ambition uh or perhaps we’re not gonna let ‘em starve, we’re alrea- we’re gonna take care of them, you know, they’re making fouty, fourty five thousand dollars a year not working right now in total benefits so, and so now you’re in a polemic, right? And now we’re talking about the human condition instead of an opportunity. So it gets, it gets pretty wonky pretty quick.
Gillespie And that’s what your- I mean your foundation exists to kind of match up people who want jobs to figure out how to get there. To get to the place both literally and figuratively where the jobs are.
Rowe You- you’re giving me too much credit. My foundation exists because I’m desperate to answer that question and I can’t. The best way I can is to say ‘One person at a time.’ If I raise this money and I put it over here and I create a sweat pledge and I create a situation where you have to make a case for yourself and then you make that case, persuasively. Then I get to do something that most foundations don’t do and most scholarships don’t do. Most scholarships reward academia, athleticism, talent and of course, need, right? We’re affirmatively trying to reward work ethic by simply identifying a person who any company would love to hire. I’m trying to be, on a micro level, the HR department the country secretly wishes it had. So if I can, in some way, qualify these people, the same way a pre-apprenticeship program might qualify a tradesman. If we can some- in some way qualify work ethic and character and a willingness to do the hard thing, wow. People love to support that effort and companies love to hire that person.
Gillespie In- in most states in order to become a barber you’ve got to go through, you know, hundreds if not thousands of hours of training which costs money and takes time and you know, rigmarole. uh You go up the line, you know, to drive a forklift, to drive a big rig, to work on an oil rig, all- you know, what is your general sense? Is occupational licensing, uhm is it- is it a good thing? is it a bad thing? does it get abused? uh, you know, are there un- is it being used to keep people out, to restrict the labor supply so the guys who are on the inside get more money or is it working the way that it should be?
Rowe Yes, yes… yes… no. uhm It’s a good thing when there’s something wrong with your brain and you need a guy to fix it. Or a woman to fix your brain. I- I want the person working on my brain to have certificates on the wall that prove their commitment to brain work. uhm The person working on my hair, uh it would be awesome if they didn’t destroy it, but I don’t really uh I don’t really need the comfort, you know? So, you know, there was a great movie uhm guy named Sean Malone did it. It’s called uh Locked Out where he talked about licensure in- in Georgia I think or maybe Alabama. And they were looking at hair braiding. So, you know, they were profiling a series of black women who braided hair and were good at it and wanted to open their own businesses and the cost, after you get all the hours and all of the stuff is close to twenty thousand dollars. So, when that kind of licensure becomes a barrier to entrepreneurship, it’s the opposite of good, you know? When it exists to keep a lunatic from confusing your right and left hemisphere during brain surgery, it’s good.
Gillespie How do we change our attitude towards the trades and get rid of a lot of this 20th century baggage that just seems to be getting in the way now.
Rowe We talk. And we yell and we scream and we bang our shoe and, look, things are- technology’s evolving so quickly, forget Uber, what about driverless cars? What’s going to happen to the trucking industry? When it’s safer to have a truck with no driver? What happens when you can license out your own car without a driver? Your car could be working for you right now and it probably will be in five, ten years.
Gillespie You know I parked it with a valet, so I’m pretty sure he’s-
Rowe You’ll never see it again.
Gillespie Stealing drugs or something. I hope he is.
Rowe So I- I don’t know, you know? I love the way that the technology though is going to force us to answer that question. I think Huxley said-
Gillespie And we shouldn’t- we shouldn’t stop the technology simply because it’s forcing questions.
Rowe Well that’s a- that’s a heck of a statement. I’m not gonna disagree with you but Huxley said the greatest uh, the greatest enemy of freedom is total anarchy but the second greatest enemy is total efficiency. And, you know, somewhere in there is this conversation between effectiveness versus efficiency and part of what you’re talking about, I think these holdovers from the, from the early 20th century… we just have to decide, again, how we’re gonna set the table. You know? It, and- and for me it’s, look, I’m very confusing to people who hire me sometimes because they’ve looked at Dirty Jobs and they’ve seen an anthem to blue collar work. What they didn’t see was that it was every bit as much an anthem to entrepreneurship and opportunity in small business. And the idea that those two things can exist as two sides to the same coin is confusing today in the same way that, you know, there’s Trump, there’s Clinton. There’s blue collar, there’s white collar. There’s, right, there’s innovation and imitation.
Gillespie I’ve heard people say, and I can see where they’re coming from, that you romanticize physical labor or blue collar work and this is kind of like the way that settlers of the- at the moment that the Indians were fully vanquished then they started paying tribute to them. And that it’s kind of a romanticization. So what is, your saying is no, it actually isn’t. Because these guys are entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs do- I mean there’s a reason they call it sweat equity, right? In the beginning of uh-
Rowe Of the 300 people we featured on the show, 50 were multi-millionaires. Nobody knew it, A: because we didn’t talk about it and B: because they were covered in somebody else’s shit. You just didn’t know it. And and our brains don’t allow us to look at a person like that and immediately equate it with success. That’s a problem. That’s a problem. uh But it’s also another example of the dissonance, the cognitive dissonance and so I just think the uh I just think it’s a false choice. I think we’re full of false choices right now, full of bad choices. Honestly I think the election’s a good example. But the way we process things and the way we force the conversation leaves us with, you know, protectionist or not protectionist, you know? Blue collar or white collar. Well what about the muddy boots architect? What about what Ayn Rand wrote about? What about the person whose collar is blue but whose- whose brain is that of a brilliant architect. I mean what? you know, those are the people who are gonna succeed, I believe, moving forward, uhm and if they have a freelance, a freelance mentality then I think they’re gonna succeed doubly.
Gillespie Well, talk about that because uh you, you talked earlier you said about making yourself indispensable. You show up at a job site, you know, and it can be in an office building or it can be, you know, in a garbage pit. You don’t know what you’re doing and in 18 months you make your- you’re running the joint. How, what is the secret to that?
Rowe One of the early great lessons I learned uh from my dad and my grandfather was you have to be willing to do the uncomfortable thing. So it’s just really si- it’s just a- it’s just a muscle. If you’re at a dinner party and it’s over and it’s time to clean up… do it. Get up and start doin’ the dishes. Do- always volunteer for the scut work. It, it actually is possible. Anybody can do that. The big lesson actually I think, I think came from the boy scouts where my scout master pulled me aside at some point and said ‘You want the secret to success?’ we were havin- I said ‘Yeah I’ll take it.’ He said ‘It’s not- it’s not enough to simply be willing to do the hard work, you have to find a way to love it’. You have to find a way to like it and quietly congratulate yourself and to take like real- not just pride ’cause I- I’m not sure what that word means anymore but there’s a, there’s a nobility in it, you know? and- and- and the people who think that way and act that way not as a pretense or a contrivance but because that’s just who they become I don’t know anybody like that who isn’t successful.
Gillespie This is makin’ me think that somewhere along the line you read Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus and applied it to work.
Rowe Yeah. Look, I mean it’s, making little rocks out of big rocks is uh, is soul deadening and nothing in my world view uhm is in defense of drudgery. And for a long time, you know, people used to ask me on Dirty Jobs one of the things that was so surprising about that show is we tuned in expecting to see drudgery, because that, of course, is what we associate with so much of that content. What we showed them on the show was something else. uh Usually humor, there’s great good humor uh in the work force, you know? And in these particular kinds of jobs it’s- it’s keen, sometimes it’s gallows oriented, but it’s there. And so when you tune in expecting to see drudgery and you see humor that was powerful. So some congressman a couple years ago actually introduced the ‘good jobs’ bill. The hell is that? What the hell is that? The Good Jobs Bill? Now there’s no bad jobs bill but by implication we’re gonna sit down to talk about the good jobs we’ve just tacitly acknowledged the huge category of bad jobs. When we sit down to talk about the importance of higher education we’ve just tacitly confessed to the existence of lower education. Now we don’t call it that because that would be gross, we call it alternative education. So the language is important, the way we set the table matters, and we start pushing kids toward an alternative, it’s pretty clear that that is going to lead to a uh some- some kind of non-good job and so suddenly we have all of these vocational consolation prizes and you don’t want your kids to have a vocational consolation prize, you want them to live a life that’s the result of a higher education.
Gillespie Talk a little bit about what you’re trying to do with the way I heard it uhm and one of the recent uh I think it uh one of you’re very recent uhm stories, you write up stories about people, has to do with a woman named Madam CJ Walker, uh which I think ties into a lot of themes we’ve been talking about. Who is she and why did you feel the need to write a story the way that you- you know, the whole idea is that writing stories the way you heard it and you’re telling that so talk a little bit about her and then we’ll talk about your mother’s letter.
Rowe So Madam CJ Walker uhm was the first female American millionaire. And uh she was the daughter of slaves. And very few people know this, she made her fortune because her hair started falling out when she was 32 and she was in a panic about it and she had married a no good bum and uh her first husband had died very young. She was widowed, she had a little girl, she was living in Vicksburg and you just couldn’t have had a grimmer deal. She moved to St. Louis and she developed a pomade that stopped her hair from falling out. And she started making it in her sink and she started selling it door to door.
Gillespie And this is 1900, 1905, something like that.
Rowe 1905, yeah, early on. So she basically creates way before Estee Lauder or Mary Kay a kind of direct marketing door to door organization. She opens hair colleges around the country, she makes a fortune, she creates forty thousand jobs. Her real name was Sarah Breedlove. And, and the way I tell the story or I tried to the same way I do it with all these podcasts, which by the way, is a straight up homage to Paul Harvey. I’m trying to channel the rest of the story ’cause how many times listening to Paul Harvey did you wind up in your car drive- you got to where you were going but you couldn’t get out of the car until you hear the mystery. So I don’t tell the viewer Sarah Breedlove is CJ Walker I don’t tell the viewer the events are unfolding in 1905 I let people assume it’s 05, 2005. And so in the end, hopefully, you know, you have this surprise reveal where we learn that a woman overcame some amazing obstacles, we learn that she was the daughter of slaves, we learn that uh we don’t know who she is. You’re one of the only people I know whose heard of CJ Walker before. But what’s going on in the 21st century where we’re having this giant conversation about equality in the workplace and equal pay and you know we have a woman, a woman running for president or perhaps she is by the time this airs or perhaps she was- at least she got in the game anyway. But why don’t we know who CJ Walker was? The first female American millionaire, it’s a- so to me, you know, the way I heard it is another opportunity for me to say ‘here’s somebody you should know.’ But it’s a much much much shorter format. I write the stories myself, I record them in the podcast world but then to your point I sit at my kitchen table and I read them, I read them without pretense or apology and dude I can’t tell you, I mean. The podcast itself is, I mean, it’s downloaded a few hundred thousand times a week which is nice, but the Facebook thing, sitting at my kitchen table reading a story on Facebook. It’s millions of views. If I got, if I could get, where are you people when I do a TV show? If I could get the same people watching a TV show that watch me read a story at my kitchen table, game over.
Gillespie Well when that drone footage comes out I think you’re gonna go through the roof-
Rowe Save it for sweeps
Gillespie You might get back on the cable nets. Uh talk about the letter from your mother because this has gotta be your biggest hit.
Rowe I never seen anything like it. And I’ve talked to people at Facebook who said they’ve never seen anything like it. My mother, my m other uhm both my parents by the way are just pieces of work and I love the and I don’t see them enough and so a couple weeks ago she left me a couple messages over the weekend. And I was out and I didn’t call her back. So in a- in a beautifully thinly veiled passive aggressive attempt to shame me she wrote me an email saying uhm ‘look if you prefer to talk publicly uh you can post uh what I’m about to share with you on your Facebook page and maybe I’ll do the same on mine. I was simply calling you to tell you that I lost my big blue purse at Walmart and uh the ensuing events I found somewhat humorous.’ So she proceeded to tell me this story in the form of a letter that started Dear Mike. I read the letter, I nearly peed my pants, it was one of the funniest things I’d read and I immediately set up the phone I hit record and I read it again and then I posted it on Facebook and I went to work. In 36 hours I came back and 20 million people had watched this thing and then the next day 45 million people had watched it and I just looked at it again before we sat down 110 million people have been reached. A third of the country, a third of the country watched me sit at my kitchen table reading an email, a passive aggressive email from my mother. So, someth- something’s happening in the world uh and again it’s moms, it’s sons, it’s big blue purses, it’s Walmart, it’s new technology, it’s kitchen tables and it’s for sale.
Gillespie And if nothing else you’re hosting or you’re making space for a conversation that we want to have, obviously, people are watching that.
Rowe Look I hope. I mean back to your first question which I thought was kinda brilliant, you know, the degree you- how are we connecting? and how are we disconnected? and what- where are we going socially? There’s so much, there’s so much noise everywhere that it- I just think that people are really really craving uh these honest, the word’s overused but, authentic moments. And so, you know, everybody’s lost their wallet or their purse. Everybody’s mother’s given them crap for not calling back. Everybody’s gotten you know a shaming email. But not everybody has puked I up for the world to see and so that just happened and now my mother has a book deal. And an agent. oy!
Gillespie Yeah. We have been talking with Mike Rowe of the Mike Rowe Works Foundation. Check him out at Facebook, check him out all over the place from Dirty Jobs to Somebody’s Gotta Do It and to his fantastic podcast The Way I Heard It. Mike, thanks so much for talking to Reason.
Rowe Next time: you wear the hat, I wear the coat.
Gillespie Okay. I’ll- or I’ll wear the robe if you got the extra
Rowe There you go! I’ll make some calls.
Gillespie For Reason TV I’m Nick Gillespie.
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