As the star of “Dirty Jobs” on the Discovery Network, Mike Rowe tried his hand at a host of grubby occupations — sewer inspector, zoo cleaner, roadkill collector. He’s even castrated lambs with his teeth (!). Rowe’s lifelong appreciation for labor and the hardworking people who tackle tough jobs led him to launch a nonprofit foundation, mikeroweWORKS, which promotes training for skilled trades, a message he’ll bring to this week’s Minneapolis Home + Garden Show. We caught up with Rowe to talk about his dirtiest dirty job, the family member who inspired him and the kindly cop who recently brought Rowe to the Twin Cities. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: What got you interested in exploring dirty jobs?
A: Going back to my grandfather. He was my next-door neighbor. We lived on a little farm in Baltimore. He only went through the seventh grade, but he was a master electrician by age 30 and mastered all the skilled trades. I thought I’d follow in his footsteps, but the handy gene is recessive.
One day [when Rowe was working as a TV broadcaster in San Francisco] my mother called. She said, “Your grandfather won’t be around forever. Wouldn’t it be great if he could turn on the TV and see you doing something that looks like work?” So we went into the sewers of San Francisco with a sewer inspector. That little segment launched “Dirty Jobs,” which ultimately put me on this very weird path I’m still on and can’t seem to get off.
Q: What did you do before “Dirty Jobs”?
A: I went completely the other way, on my grandfather’s advice. I started exploring things — narrating, hosting, writing, singing. I sold stuff in the middle of the night on QVC. I freelanced in New York, doing voice-overs in commercial work. I hosted infomercials, game shows, pilots for doomed sitcoms.
I had a pretty good little career, once I realized how much honest work was done in the entertainment business that was doomed to fail. Very few projects that get greenlit actually work. All my friends focused on getting a hit. I was focused on whatever job would pay me. I did the evening news for CBS in San Francisco. That was the format that introduced the segment “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.”
Q: What was the most unpleasant dirty job you ever tackled?
A: That’s unknowable. Of the 300, I could list 30 that would be good answers. It’s difficult to compare swimming through raw sewage to looking for opals in Australia, lowered 60 feet into a shaft. If you’re claustrophobic, you go completely out of your mind. That’s the only one I’d never do again — being at the bottom of a 60-foot shaft, with dirt touching either shoulder, and a tiny pinprick of blue sky.
Q: I’m surprised it wasn’t castrating a lamb with your teeth.
A: That episode ended up turning into a TED talk. That whole segment made you realize that the experts are wrong, that everything you think you know is wrong. It was a very humbling day. The ranchers’ method, while looking barbaric, was kinder to the animal in the long run, and more efficient for the worker.
Q: Is there a job you haven’t experienced that you’re still curious about?
A: No. Not to say I’m incurious. I only had a list of 25 or 30 jobs when we started. No one thought it would be a series, much less a franchise. When I was done with the list, I asked viewers to drop me a line and tell me what I ought to do. “Dirty Jobs” began to be programmed by viewers. I’m doing a series, “Returning the Favor” [a reality web TV series about people who are giving back to their communities] for Facebook Watch, and viewers program that.
Q: What’s the most enjoyable job you’ve ever had?
A: It sounds kind of glib, but as weird and bad as a lot of them were, I enjoyed trying most everything on “Dirty Jobs.” The most rewarding and enjoyable these days is awarding work-ethic scholarships. In 12 years, we’ve awarded over $5 million in scholarships. That’s a pretty good legacy for a TV show that started in the sewer.
Q: What will you be presenting at the Home + Garden Show?
A: I’ll be on stage, telling stories and answering questions. I partnered with these guys [Marketplace Events, producer of the show] because they represent a lot of builders, do-it-yourselfers, people who make products that need to be installed, fabricated.
There’s such a shortage of people trained to do that work. My foundation is focused on training those kinds of people. It’s a great place for me to talk about the foundation.
Q: What do you hope people take away from it?
A: My message is that there are 7.3 million open positions in our country. The vast majority don’t require a four-year degree. We still have an entire generation of kids being told that the best path is a four-year degree.
My goal is to point out that $1.6 trillion in student loans has become untenable. We’re pressuring a lot of people to borrow a lot of money to pursue a degree that won’t even lead to a job. It’s a real mismatch. If you’re looking for opportunity, start with the jobs that are open.
Through the foundation, we’ve trained welders, plumbers, pipefitters, carpenters, auto repair technicians. Some who start with simple certification are now making six figures a year. People say opportunity is dead. I can prove it’s not.
Q: What trades are most acutely in need of skilled workers right now?
A: There are 50,000 open positions for welders all over the country. When you have a plumbing emergency, the plumber doesn’t come the second you call. You have to wait, sometimes a day, sometimes three. Skilled heating, HVAC, plumbing are suffering real and acute shortages. You’ll see it after the next hurricane.
It’s a big deal. I’m saying to the country, “If you don’t close the skills gap, how long do you want to wait for a plumber?” It’s one of those issues that affects everybody.
Q: Are more women going into skilled labor?
A: Yes, women are among the fastest-growing segment. Historically, women were not welcomed into the field. Now many employers are going out of their way to build friendlier on-ramps. Welding offers huge opportunities for women — a lot of jobs require a smaller, more dexterous set of hands. Lots of women apply to my foundation.
Q: How do you raise the money?
A: Originally it was me. I started auctioning off crap in my garage from “Dirty Jobs” — crap stands for Collectibles Rare and Precious. I love acronyms! We raise money through the Facebook page, companies will match donations, some write checks. When the dust settles, I’ve got about a million bucks to play with and hand out.
Q: What dirty jobs do you do at home, and which do you leave to the professionals?
A: I leave just about everything to the pros. I’m on the road three weeks a month. I call a pro. It’s funny, people think I’m a guy who can fix everything, but I’m not. I’m an apprentice, always having a first day on the job.
Q: Have you been to Minneapolis before?
A: I was just there for “Returning the Favor” a few months ago. We featured a Minneapolis cop, Mike Kirchen, who gives out bikes to kids — just a great cop!
Q: What will you be doing in Minneapolis when you’re not onstage?
A: I have absolutely no idea. Doesn’t Prince have his old place there?