Mike Rowe on Skilled Trades: ‘We Don’t Seem to Value The Pursuit of a Useful Skill’

Updated: Jan. 27, 2023

Family Handyman recently sat down with Mike Rowe to talk about the skills gap, work ethic and how to NOT give advice.

Mike Rowe might not be the handiest of men himself, but he has long been a supporter of the skilled trades and an advocate for those called to them. The former star of Dirty Jobs and current host of Somebody’s Gotta Do It has spent his career redefining what success looks like in some of America’s lesser-known and less illustrious workplaces.

Most people don’t realize in 2008 he also launched a nonprofit foundation, mikeroweWORKS, aimed at connecting students eager to learn a trade with schooling, training and job opportunities. Besides helping young people find a vocation, he has worked tirelessly for the last 12 years to help narrow the growing gap between available work and qualified workers.

“The state of the skilled trades in the U.S. is concerning,” Rowe said during a recent interview with Family Handyman associate editor Mike Berner.

When Rowe launched his foundation in 2008, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) estimated around 2.3 million job vacancies, 75 percent of which required no college education.

Fast forward to today and the gap between open jobs and skilled tradespeople has grown considerably.

The State of Skilled Trades in the U.S.

“We have 7.3 million open jobs right now, most of which don’t require a four-year degree,” Rowe said. “They require training, they require skill and they require a willingness to master a trade that’s in demand.”

The challenge with filling those open jobs, Rowe says, is the mindset that promotes college education over apprenticeships and training. In doing so, he says, we create a list of “alternative jobs” that leads generations of high schoolers to question why they’d ever want to become, among other things, a plumber, welder, pipe fitter, steamfitter or electrician.

“On one hand, it’s representation of limitless opportunity,” Rowe said. “On the other hand, it’s a reflection of what we value and, at the moment, we don’t seem to be valuing the pursuit of a useful skill.”

Rowe’s goal is not to disparage college education. He acknowledges college might be the perfect fit for some students. But he believes it’s not right for everyone.

“We just spent 50 years telling basically everybody that the best path for the most people was a four-year degree,” Rowe said. “The best path for a kid who can’t afford it and whose brain isn’t hardwired to Mideastern Studies or business development, or whatever it is, might not be borrowing $80,000 to learn a skill that’s no longer in demand.”

Advice for Those Looking to Get Into a Trade

Rowe hesitates giving career advice. He doesn’t doubt the wisdom of his life experiences, but he doesn’t buy into pat answers either.

“I think cookie-cutter advice is very dangerous,” Rowe said. “There’s a temptation to try and say the thing that makes the most sense to the most people …. I wouldn’t presume to tell somebody where to start in the skilled trades until I’ve had a chance to sit down with them and get a sense of where their particular talents lie.”

Even if Rowe isn’t willing to give direct advice, the employment statistics speak for themselves. The BLS projects increases in job vacancies across several trades through 2028, which is encouraging:

The overarching message Rowe reiterates in almost every interview is that there’s never been a better time to find a good, high-paying career in the trades, as long as you’re willing to put in the work.

Rowe believes work ethic is a valuable commodity that will play a huge part in anyone’s success, especially in the trades. The whole concept of arriving early and staying late is respected and valued among the tradespeople he speaks to frequently. Above all, he encourages young people not only to avoid the easy path, but be suspicious of it.

“Embrace a little bit of discomfort,” he said. “If it’s uncomfortable, it’s probably taking [you] someplace worth going.”

Good advice from a guy who hates giving it.