Mike Rowe Talks Work, Twentysomethings, and Dirty Jobs


My nerves are definitely getting to me as I wait to interview the Dirty Jobs man himself: Mike Rowe. When offered a beverage, I decline (though I could probably use a shot of some sort. Jack?). My mind ping-pongs between the questions I have for him and deciding whether the blue of my shirt is dark enough to conceal the copious amount of sweat my body is producing.

Mike strolls into the studio wearing a plain brown T-shirt and one of his signature baseball caps, slightly worn out, just as you’d expect it to be. He turns and reaches out a hand, which I shake, trying desperately to avoid limp-fish hand.

We head to a studio down the hall and sit across from each other. Mike pulls off his hat and sets it on the table, leaning back, totally comfortable being interviewed. Known for his strong opinions about work, he has no problem sharing his opinion. I, on the other hand, could have used ten more sets of power poses, but it’s time to start the interview.

I press record.

Kellen McKillop: Seeing as AfterCollege is a site for college students and recent graduates, let’s talk about your major. How has your degree in Communication Studies helped in your career?

Mike Rowe: Well, communications… I don’t think it’s ever hurt anyone unless they took on so much debt that, you know, they were just crippled by it. But communications is the sort of thing you do when you have no idea what to do.

Kellen McKillop: So, is that why you chose it? You didn’t know?

Mike Rowe: Yeah, look, I still don’t know.

For me, college was a big freak out because I didn’t have any money. When I was 17, my guidance counselor gave me this whole rap about how it’s a four-year degree or you’re wasting your time.

But I was, like, I don’t have any money and I don’t know what I want to do. That’s when I said I think a two-year school would be right for me… at least to figure it all out.

He says, “Don’t waste your time. It’s totally beneath your potential.” He points to this poster and, I swear, asks, “Which one of these guys do you want to be?”


See the logo? Work Smart NOT hard. Single worst piece of advice I’d ever gotten.

So I ignored it. I went to a two-year school. It was a community college and I took English and Philosophy and I stayed an extra year and took music and drama. Then I studied, um, Social Anthropology. You can study a little bit of everything and at 26 bucks a credit, you know, you can afford to be wrong.

KM: And you don’t think any of that applies to your work?

MR: I think it all applies. But, you know, if you check the want ads, there’s very little openings for social anthropologists, communicators, or English speakers. It all makes you more interesting, potentially, but… I think I learned more from working for a year.

KM: Doing what?

MR: I actually sang in the Baltimore Opera. I sang and was negotiating service contracts for, like, the very first computer company around. It was called Computerland and it was right when the PCs first came out and I was negotiating these… I mean I was totally not qualified to do really any of it.

KM: And then you went back to school?

MR: Yeah. [Communication Studies at Towson University]

KM: And what did you do after your time at Towson University?

MR: Uh, I went back to the computer thing and started auditioning for work.

KM: Yeah, I heard that was a bet…

MR: Yeah, I was in the opera and it was a production of, I think the Arthurian Legend (a horrible dirge by Wagner). I was dressed as a Viking and it was a Sunday matinee. I didn’t need to be on stage for about two hours so I walked across the street to get a beer.

KM: Naturally.

MR: By the way, it’s great fun to drink and sing opera, but yeah, that’s what I did. I was sitting at the bar and QVC was on. I didn’t know it was QVC, it was just a fat guy in a shiny suit selling pots and pans. I argued with the bartender about the end of Western civilization. I wanted to watch the football game but he was like, “No we gotta watch this. I’m auditioning for it tomorrow.”

He wound up betting me that I couldn’t get a callback. So I went to the audition and got hired on the spot because I could talk about a pencil for five… eight minutes.

KM: Eight minutes. That’s pretty impressive.

MR: Thanks. Thank you. But, that’s how they did it. There was no… the industry was so young they didn’t care about college. They didn’t care about experience as an actor or as a salesman because none of it necessarily translated. They really just hired anyone who could do the pencil thing for eight minutes and then they gave you a three-month overnight deal and 98% of those people washed out. So that’s how they hired. They literally threw you into the furnace.

So, I guess, really to answer your first question… yeah, communication helps because you gotta sit there and, you know, kill time really. There’s not much difference between the two.

KM: Do you think you’d still be working at that computer company if you hadn’t walked into that bar and made that bet?

MR: No. I was never… I mean, the computer gig was probably, in hindsight, as big an acting gig as anything. I was a total impostor.

KM: So what made you want to even pursue that?

MR: Well… they were willing to hire me. Again, it was a really young industry and I didn’t know anything about computers. They had an IBM XT, AT, and PC. They cost thousands of dollars, which in relative terms would be like paying ten grand for an iPad.

I would go in after the real salesmen (who knew stuff about computers) sold them to the procurement people. I would go in and say, “Look when these things break, it’s gonna be taken from you for two, three, four days to be fixed. If you want a loaner, we can make this deal.”

So everyone took the deal. It was just a great moment in time because people so needed the help to get their computers fixed. I couldn’t fix them. I wasn’t a repairman. I just made deals but suddenly I was making money in an industry that I didn’t like or know anything about.

But just because you’re good at a thing… doesn’t mean you should do it.

KM: Right. I think you gave that advice to a fan recently about not searching for the perfect or right job.

MR: That thing.

KM: Has blown up.

MR: Forty or fifty million people…

It’s so funny. I was sitting at home sipping a really good rye, uh, Whistle Pig. Yeah, rye’s coming back. Just a quiet evening. I had two or three and this popped up on my screen. I answered it, posted it, and went to bed. The next morning 3 million people had read it and I was, like, “Huh?”

KM: I think people are used to hearing that you should follow your passion or find your passion. I think the fact that you said something kind of the opposite of that made a huge impact.

MR: It’s a huge Dirty Jobs lesson.

I was surprised because so many people on the show were, um… happy. You expect to see misery and drudgery in those jobs, you know?

It [Dirty Jobs] certainly wasn’t a political show, but it became very political because work touches everything. That’s why the show stayed on the air so long. It was constantly letting the viewers see things that caused cognitive dissonance. Happy, singing, joking people in the sewer covered in other people’s sh*& with a rat and roaches. You’re not supposed to be happy. You’re not supposed to be on a crab boat, puking your guts out in forty foot seas, and still be having a good time.

It was just really fun to show the viewer again and again these mixed messages because TV doesn’t do that.

KM: And those are all single takes? No re-dos?

MR: Right.

KM: So, those are REAL happy people.

MR: Well, yeah and to be fair the ones who aren’t, really aren’t. We did 300 and so it was a mosaic in that way.

But the tricky part… the way it comes back to me over the net… when people argue with me, they say, “Well you can’t discount passion. Passion is important.”

Of course passion’s important. But, if it’s important, why would you follow it? Wouldn’t you be better off taking it with you no matter where you go?

So the platitude becomes: Never follow your passion but always bring it with you.

KM: I Like that. That’s good. Do you think that was the most common misconception there was about Dirty Jobs?

MR: It was one of them. As far as misconceptions? Yeah, the big one is [the people doing those jobs] are miserable. The second big one is that they’re not very smart. The third biggest one is that they’re not educated (which is of course different from being smart). The fourth is that they’re not making any money. There were probably forty or fifty multimillionaires on Dirty Jobs. We just never talked about it because it wasn’t about that. It was about being willing to get dirty, learn a useful skill, and do a thing that, uh, most people won’t.

MikeroweWORKS evolved out of Dirty Jobs in 2008. Back then, everybody I talked to who had businesses on Dirty Jobs was hiring, even at the height of the recession.

The headline news every night was, “There are no jobs. 14 million people are out of work.”

Then, for me, I saw in all 50 states, 300 different jobs with labor shortages. Nobody could find people willing to learn a useful trade and work their ass off. So then I set up a foundation and started raising money and this year we gave away, like, $4 million in what’s called a “work ethic” scholarship.

We try to look for kids who can prove and demonstrate a work ethic. It’s not about scholastic achievement. It’s not about athletics. It’s not about talent. It’s not even need based. It’s about asking yourself if you’re willing to learn a skill that’s in demand and apply it. There’s 2.5 million jobs available right now that people don’t want. And many of them pay six figures.

Welding in North Dakota!

It’s all about PR. It’s getting parents to think of a mechanic as working smart AND hard.


Right now “work” has terrible PR. Did you know that today is the beginning of National Infrastructure week?

KM: No.

MR: No one does.

KM: It’s not trending on Twitter.

MR: It’s not trending!

KM: What are some of the most important things, that you think are important, or that you observed, about work in general?

MR: Nowadays there’s a lot of confusion between work and labor.

Work, to me, has just become this thing that’s much more broad and it’s better to talk about because (and I have no science to back this up) but in terms of word association, when I say “work” you can talk about, like, dignity in work. When I say labor, it’s either “organized labor” or “manual labor” or something that just starts… like labor pains!

But whether you call it “work” or “labor,” they’ve both been identified as “in the way” of your happiness.

If you could just work less or retire a little faster or do 30 hours a week instead of 40… you know, all these things. If only there was less of that, there would be more of something else and that something else is happiness.

So, that’s a lie.

The other lie is, “If you only had the right job.”

It’s become amazingly acceptable to hate your job and bitch about your boss. Misery on the job is no longer your fault. It’s somebody else’s fault and if it’s not your boss’s fault, it’s the company’s fault. If it’s not the company’s fault, it’s society’s fault! But not your fault, right?

On Dirty Jobs there was a big push back against that kind of thinking.

KM: What advice do you have for recent graduates or people of my generation (twentysomethings) in general?

MR: Kids today are rightly very suspicious of people who claim to “know.” I don’t want to claim to know.

I can only tell you what happened to me and my journey was very, very humbling. The thing I wanted to do the most, I couldn’t because I didn’t get the gene.

My grandad, he built the house I was born in without a blueprint. He friggin’ built it! I saw him do that all of my youth. He was a magician. I knew that’s what I wanted to do. But I failed woodshop. I failed metal shop. I failed autoshop. That’s why I don’t have much patience for people who are like, “Well, this is my dream.”

Had I stuck with that, I would be a very unhappy, underperforming, below average carpenter or welder today. I mean, I would have gotten better at it but I knew I had to leave it. So yeah, it was my grandfather who said, “It’s cool that you want to be a tradesman, but you need a different tool box.”

That’s the best advice I ever got and I would pass it on.

I would say that being a tradesman is a state of mind. I can apply it to writing, acting, producing, or directing. I don’t think I have to make any of those my identity. There’s such a tendency to put your whole identity or determine your identity or assign somebody’s identity based on what they do. That’s kind of hackneyed, an obvious thing for me to say, but it’s a trap.

The idea that a job or a company is going to be your employer for the next 10, 20, 30 years… that ship has sailed.

I really love freelancing. Do you know where the word comes from?

KM: No, but I can guess. Something to do with lances…

MR: Exactly. It’s medieval. A freelance in the 12th century was a knight who served no lord. He was a mercenary. He had his horse (his steed), he had his armor, and he had his lance. He wasn’t allegiant to anyone.

That’s gonna come back. It already has. I mean, the whole democratization of the web…

What I see today for a lot of people in their twenties is that they understand the reality of the freelance from a work standpoint, but they don’t have the state of mind.

You (if I can generalize) need feedback. It’s, like, “I want to know how I’m doing but don’t tell me how to do it!”

I think that’s great, but it’s tricky because most employers are not millennials…

But really, the best workers I know today are in their twenties. They’re just not necessarily emblematic of the group. They’re just people who have figured out this weird combination of freelancing and eating what you kill. That’s it.

This concludes the talking portion of the interview (which is a pretty big bummer considering Mike’s voice is the greatest ever. Seriously, it’s like a combination of Mufasa, Morgan Freeman, and Gandalf).

We head over to a bigger room to take a #selfie together since, really, what better type of picture is there?

Then, it’s time for me to go. As I leave, he nods and explains that he has more work to do, grabbing his laptop from a nearby table. It’s not complaining. Just stating a fact. I have a feeling that he really believes what he says: Work is not “in the way” of his happiness. It’s a part of it.

Homework time! First of all, check out Mike’s personal website, Profoundly Disconnected to learn more about mikeroweWORKS, upcoming projects, and dirty jobs that need to be filled.

Think he’s got a point about “freelancing being the career of the future”? We’ve talked to a few people who chose the freelancing route after college. You can read about their experiences here.

As Mike said, what you major in will probably apply (in some way) to what you end up doing in life, but not necessarily in a direct way. Sadly, there aren’t listings for many social anthropologists, communicators, or English speakers. Explore the jobs listed on AfterCollege for your major, read about science majors, English majors, Environmental Business Majors, and Education professionals who all pursued careers totally outside their field of study.

P.S. Not scared of getting dirty and working hard? Check out mikeroweWorks.com


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