What Mr. Dunbar got wrong

It was 1977 when an 18-year-old Mike Rowe, future host of Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs, sat down with his high-school guidance counselor, Mr. Dunbar, to discuss his future. Rowe told Dunbar that he was considering community college. Dunbar, distressed by Rowe's plans, pointed to a poster of two men that hung on the wall of his office.

One man, Rowe explained, held a diploma and was smiling while the other man held a wrench and was "looking down at the ground like he's some sort of vocational consolation prize." The words "Work smart, NOT hard" were printed on it. Dunbar asked Rowe which of the men he wanted to be.

The guidance counselor's question frustrated Rowe. He was young, had no money and no idea what he wanted to do. Community college seemed a responsible solution—an affordable, logical way to figure it out. Dunbar disagreed.

"It's beneath your potential," Dunbar said, according to Rowe.

This pretentious mindset has widened the skill gap and created unnecessary financial burdens for people, Rowe said. "What we've basically done is laid out a roadmap that says the best path for the most people is the most expensive path," he said. "We've convinced ourselves that that's the truth. And we've convinced this generation that that's the truth."

Rowe pulled no punches as he shared insights on blue-collar jobs, the myth of following passion and why we need to stop picking on millennials, during his opening keynote address at this year's HR Technology Conference & Exposition in Las Vegas.

Going Commando

Rowe opened his talk with a story about a segment he shot on a ranch in Texas that raises Brangas beef, through artificial insemination. In the segment, Rowe artificially inseminates 75 cows and collects the semen of a large Brama bull named Hunsucker Commando. "It's wildly inappropriate but it's really, really interesting," he said.

Executive producer Gina McCarthy, who was expecting a segment on artificial intelligence, was not amused. Rowe defended the content.

"Artificial insemination is a critical part of feeding our country," he explained to McCarthy. "Steve and the people who work on this farm—and countless other people—they're doing a job that's really, really important." After much discussion, McCarthy allowed the segment to air but ordered show editors to pixelate the bull's private regions.

Not long after Hunsucker Commando's debut, the US economy crashed and Rowe saw a new conversation about work begin to emerge. Daily headlines screamed about rising unemployment numbers but as Rowe filmed his show around the country, he saw a proliferation of "Help Wanted" signs.

It was 2008 and 2.3 million jobs existed that nobody wanted, Rowe explained. "It seemed to me [that] another narrative was maybe going on in the country," he said. "It seemed to me that some of these opportunities were being pixelated."

The situation prompted Rowe to launch his foundation, mikeroweWORKS. The foundation provides scholarships to people who want to get training in specific skills.

"All sorts of other opportunities have been pixelated, along with the trade schools that are out there," Rowe said. "We need to get the pixels out of the way, not so we can behold Hunsucker Commando's glory, but so we can simply see the opportunities that are right in front of us. Because there are so many and they're everywhere."

Les is more

Telling young people to follow their passion is bad advice, said Rowe. "Passion is terribly important--too important to follow," he said.

Rowe told the story of Les Swanson, a former behavioral scientist turned septic tank cleaner who lives in Wisconsin. The two spent the day in "very grimy pits of despair" and Rowe marveled at Swanson's enjoyment of the grimy work.

"The pumping station that he took me to on the side of the road was unlike anything I'd ever seen--15 feet deep, five feet deep of sewage," Rowe said. "And this guy whistles while he works! Literally, he just loves his job."

Swanson did not follow his passion into a septic tank, Rowe said. After years of working with people, Swanson decided to "hit the reset button and see where everybody was going--and then he went the other way," Rowe said. "He just took the reverse commute."

Swanson, like the other people profiled on Dirty Jobs, were passionate about their work but none of them started that way. "They didn't start by being told, 'Identify the one thing that can make you happy'," Rowe explained. Swanson got trained, purchased a truck, worked for a couple years and then "figured out a way to be really good at it—he figured out a way to love it."

"We all want to wind up engaged, doing meaningful work, passionate about what we do," Rowe said. "It's just a question of what route you want to take."

Be nice to the snowflakes

Millennials are easy targets, said Rowe, referencing common stereotypes of "snowflakes", crying closets and safe spaces.

"We shake our heads [but] we are the clouds from which the snowflakes fell," he asserted.

We set millennials up for their messy situation, according to Rowe. "We did this," he said. "We told you that if you went the other way, you would be a sad sack, holding a wrench, looking at the ground and regretting your every decision. If you don't go to college, you're going to be that guy."

It's time to change that message and mentality, Rowe said. "When we start promoting one form of education at the expense of the others, then we put ourselves on a track we might as well all bend down and hold the cup while somebody else turns the nob," he said, referencing his time with Hunsucker Commando. "This is gonna get weird, man. It's gonna get really, really weird."

Kanoe Namahoe is editorial director for SmartBrief Education and Workforce.

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