Mike Rowe: America Must Return to Dirty Jobs to Solve Unemployment

The U.S. economy has gotten away from its roots.

By + More

Mike Rowe is the creator and host of the Discovery Channel's Dirty Jobs and the CEO of mikeroweWORKS.com.

I was invited by the Association of Equipment Manufacturers to help launch its new initiative called "I Make America" in Washington, D.C., recently. Sadly, the only thing I make is a mess, but I flew to D.C. anyway to share my vast understanding of America's manufacturing problems with a roomful of elected officials and staff. It was fun. Unlike actual experts, I don't need facts to support my opinion, just a few sweeping generalizations based on my invaluable perspective as a guy most often seen with his hand in a cow's bottom.

Allow me to summarize.

I have this nagging suspicion that our manufacturing problems are not really problems at all, but rather a symptom of a dysfunctional relationship with dirt. That's right, dirt—the eternal hallmark of skilled labor.

The composition of our gross domestic product has always mirrored a willingness to get dirty. When agriculture dominated output, dirt was recognized as the essential ingredient to prosperity. Getting dirty was synonymous with jobs and food. Consequently, we valued our dirty farmers.

With the industrial revolution, manufacturing surpassed agriculture. Innovation and efficiency got all the glamour, but the willingness to get dirty was always there. It propelled our economy to new heights and made us the richest nation on Earth. And we loved our dirty tradesmen.

[Check out a roundup of editorial cartoons on the economy.]

Then our economy shifted again, in a truly seismic way. Financial services surpassed manufacturing. We began to lose our fascination with the way things were getting made and instead focused on the way things were getting bought.

The dirty face of farming and manufacturing got a thorough scrubbing, and the definition of a "good job" began to change. Silicon Valley rolled out a sparkling new toolbox, full of gleaming possibilities, and for the first time in our history, the bulk of our output was tied to clean jobs. What do we have to show for it? Record unemployment, a looming skills gap, a crumbling infrastructure, and a dearth of manufacturing.

Isn't it possible that we've become disconnected from the food we eat and the goods we buy because we no longer value the people who make them?

[Read more about unemployment and the economy.]

Skilled tradesmen are now products of "alternative education." Valuable apprenticeships and on-the-job training serve as vocational consolation prizes for those not suited to a traditional sheepskin. We continue to promote the four-year degree at the expense of all other forms of knowledge, even as graduates move back home in record numbers, drowning in record debt. Meanwhile, the Future Farmers of America officially changed its name to FFA because the term "farmer" negatively impacted its ability to attract new members. Extraordinary.

I'm no expert, but I do get around. I've worked as a fake apprentice in just about every industry, and I've dealt with feces from every species. And I'm here to tell you, with all the certainty of a guy on cable TV, that manufacturing and skilled labor are in the toilet because we have cultivated a dysfunctional relationship with dirt.