“Chairman Rockefeller, Ranking Member Hutchison and members of this committee, my name is Mike Rowe, and I want to thank you all very much for the opportunity to testify before you today.
I’m here today because of my grandfather.
His name was Carl Knobel, and he made his living in Baltimore as a master electrician. He was also a plumber, a mechanic, a mason, and a carpenter. Everyone knew him as a jack-of-all-trades. I knew him as a magician.
For most of his life, my grandfather woke up clean and came home dirty. In between, he accomplished things that were nothing short of miraculous. Some days he might re-shingle a roof. Or rebuild a motor. Or maybe run electricity out to our barn. He helped build the church I went to as a kid, and the farmhouse my brothers and I grew up in. He could fix or build anything, but to my knowledge he never once read the directions. He just knew how stuff worked.
I remember one Saturday morning when I was 12. I flushed the toilet in the same way I always had. The toilet however, responded in a way that was completely out of character. There was a rumbling sound, followed by a distant gurgle. Then, everything that had gone down reappeared in a rather violent and spectacular fashion.
Naturally, my grandfather was called in to investigate, and within the hour I was invited to join he and my dad in the front yard with picks and shovels.
By lunch, the lawn was littered with fragments of old pipe and mounds of dirt. There was welding and pipe-fitting, blisters and laughter, and maybe some questionable language. By sunset we were completely filthy. But a new pipe was installed, the dirt was back in the hole, and our toilet was back on its best behavior. It was one of my favorite days ever.
Thirty years later in San Francisco when my toilet blew up again. This time, I didn't participate in the repair process. I just called my landlord, left a check on the kitchen counter, and went to work. When I got home, the mess was cleaned up and the problem was solved. As for the actual plumber who did the work, I never even met him.
It occurred to me that I had become disconnected from a lot of things that used to fascinate me. I no longer thought about where my food came from, or how my electricity worked, or who fixed my pipes, or who made my clothes. There was no reason to. I had become less interested in how things got made, and more interested in how things got bought.
At this point my grandfather was well into his 80s, and after a long visit with him one weekend, I decided to do a TV show in his honor. Today, Dirty Jobs is still on the air, and I am here before this committee, hoping to say something useful. So, here it is.
I believe we need a national PR Campaign for Skilled Labor. A big one. Something that addresses the widening skills gap head on, and reconnects the country with the most important part of our workforce.
Right now, American manufacturing is struggling to fill 200,000 vacant positions. There are 450,000 openings in trades, transportation and utilities. The skills gap is real, and it’s getting wider. In Alabama, a third of all skilled tradesmen are over 55. They’re retiring fast, and no one is there to replace them.
Alabama’s not alone. A few months ago in Atlanta I ran into Tom Vilsack, our Secretary of Agriculture. Tom told me about a governor who was unable to move forward on the construction of a power plant. The reason was telling. It wasn't a lack of funds. It wasn't a lack of support. It was a lack of qualified welders.
In general, we’re surprised that high unemployment can exist at the same time as a skilled labor shortage. We shouldn't be. We’ve pretty much guaranteed it.
In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of “higher education” to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled “alternative.” Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of “shovel ready” jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.
In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber — if you can find one — is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.
I came here today because guys like my grandfather are no less important to civilized life than they were 50 years ago. Maybe they’re in short supply because we don’t acknowledge them they way we used to. We leave our check on the kitchen counter, and hope the work gets done. That needs to change.
My written testimony includes the details of several initiatives designed to close the skills gap, all of which I've had the privilege to participate in. Go Build Alabama, I Make America, and my own modest efforts through Dirty Jobs and mikeroweWORKS. I’m especially proud to announce “Discover Your Skills,” a broad-based initiative from Discovery Communications that I believe can change perceptions in a meaningful way.
I encourage you to support these efforts, because closing the skills gap doesn't just benefit future tradesmen and the companies desperate to hire them. It benefits people like me, and anyone else who shares my addiction to paved roads, reliable bridges, heating, air conditioning, and indoor plumbing.
The skills gap is a reflection of what we value. To close the gap, we need to change the way the country feels about work.”
The gap that Mr. Rowe speaks about is entirely real. There are many fields of skilled, blue-collar, manual labor where jobs go unfilled, and workers are desperately needed. But his analysis of why we have this problem is woefully simplistic and lacking. This is no simple matter of attitudes and values, but the result of a complexity of forces that have reshaped our economy and the choices of individuals within that economy.
Which means that it is an issue too complex to be dealt with in one little blog post. However, let's look at two issues briefly: 1) the physical demands of the jobs, opportunities for advancement and retirement, and 2) the issue of health care.
While it is true that most young people think only about the job they will get when they graduate, how much it pays and what its like, their parents and teachers often encourage them to think about longer term issues, such as opportunities for advancement, and how the job will fit them as they age. The skilled manual labor jobs that are going unfilled in our economy are jobs for younger people, with flexibility and strength. The majority of people are unable to continue with physically demanding jobs past their fifties.
Unlike Mr. Rowe (who puts the check on the counter and comes back to work completed), I've been present and actively observing all the plumbing, septic, electrical and construction work done to install my new double wide. What I've noticed is that all the men (no women) who have been using shovels to dig, climbing in ditches, crawling under houses, and climbing ladders have been under 45, and all the men who have been yelling instructions, checking paper work, assigning tasks, and supervising have been over 55. Now the problem is that for each over 55 year old doing supervisory work, there are three to five young men carrying out the physical labor, meaning that not every young man who goes into manual labor will have an opportunity to become a supervisory worker or construction business owner. So what does that person do when they hit 50 and their knees no longer bend easily, and their back spasms every time they try to crawl under a house, or pick up a load of bricks, or climb a ladder to install wiring?
Part of the problem of getting young people to go into skilled manual labor fields of work, is the problem of what happens to them when they hit middle age and can no longer handle the physical demands of that job. We have to think seriously and realistically about how to provide work for older blue collar workers, that doesn't treat them as surplus labor to be thrown on the heap of long term unemployment and disability. As a society we are not currently doing well for our 45 to 65 year old blue collar workers. Young people know these workers as their parents and grandparents, and seeing what has happened to them is part of what deters them from going into those fields.
Related to this, of course, is the issue of retirement. A person going into manual labor has to have a realistic expectation that they will be able to retire while they still have some strength and vitality (early to mid-60's at least) and have adequate income to live comfortably. As a society we are not doing a good job of providing young people with any kind of assurance that social security, much less private pensions, will be there for them.
The second issue is health care. When I graduated from college in 1973, during a recession, I took a secretarial position paying minimum wage ($1.80 an hour). With that income I paid for rent, food, transportation and clothing, and I was also able to afford to buy my own, individual health insurance policy from Blue Cross/Blue Shield. The skilled manual workers at the businesses where I was employed made considerably more money than I did, and could afford health care not only for themselves but for their families as well.
Although young people are more cavalier about their needs for health insurance than older people, health insurance coverage is one of the incentives that a occupational choice may offer someone. Physical labor, puts greater demands on workers, and although actual accidents are usually (but not always) covered under workman's compensation, the general wear and tear on the body's joints and systems is not.
A truly universal health care system that seriously attacks the costs of medical care and medication would go a long way towards allowing young people to consider a wider range of occupational choices. If health care stops being tied to jobs, than jobs can be chosen for reasons other than health care coverage.
These are only two of the dozens of complex issues that affect occupational choices of young people in this country, and must be addressed as part of a multi-faceted approach to develop the workforce we actually need to move this nation forward.