Testify!

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I know this is preaching to the converted, but this is such a good read and so spot on that it’s worth your time. If you don’t have a “fuck yeah!” moment after you read this, you should question why you come to this site.
Mike Rowe’s Testimony Before the U.S. Senate Committee
on Commerce, Science and Transportation
May 11, 2011
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.

t 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.

10 Responses to “Testify!”

  1. Adam says:

    This is so true and so important,

    Also good book to read on this topic is “Shop Class as Soulcraft”

  2. grail21 says:

    That book is awesome. I think I posted a chapter here a while ago, the dude that wrote it is solid.

  3. Stephen says:

    After 20 year in a “knowledge job” I read Soulcraft then I purchased some tools and started wrenching.. never been happier.

    Go Mike!!

  4. FOE says:

    School being ruined. Around here they put in a skills center. It takes 30 students for each trade they offer. Problem is, that those 30 are taken from all the outlying schools. Closed those school programs. So the math is roughly. 10 schools, 3-4 classes per school 30 students per class. So rounded say 1000 students narrowed down to a nice easy 30. Kills the auto shop, welding shop, agricultural shop very quickly. Kills the potential skilled tradesman. Wife reminded me that most of the kids in the skills center are the “problem” children that need hidden away.

  5. mike says:

    Fuck yeah! You turned me onto “Shop Class as Soulcraft” and I just finished it yesterday. That book (and this testimony) have put into words some of the feelings I’ve had for a while now. I hope this initiative pans out…we need it bad.

  6. marc says:

    I have believed this for longer then you know.. I am a skilled trades person and I have watched how people respond to a work truck and myself in work clothes. If it wasn’t for myself and friends they wouldn’t have a home to live in.

  7. john says:

    the trades got us to where we are, a man with the knowledge of a tool is far better than a man directing a man with a tool

  8. wallster says:

    Great, thanks for posting Mike Rowes testimony. Who doesn’t feel a sense of accomplishment after they’ve built or repaired something? … I guess not enough Americans anymore.

  9. Ken says:

    I have a building being built right across the street from me. I hear from all these guys how they can’t get a good job and I was buying into it until I found out that they didn’t want to work alongside the hispanic workforce. They wouldn’t say it, but it was pretty clear that since there was a brown skinned guy doing the job, it was beneath them. Tradesmen make great money. I’m sour that I didn’t stick with being a union electrician and instead went into management. I would be making a great living working less hours. Pride gets in the way. I can’t believe a guy would rather make 40k a year wearing a tie than making 50k plus in a trade.

  10. Where2gogal says:

    Thanks for posting Mikes remarks… like many here in this thread We have also found Shop craft couldn’t agree with the concept more! Our son will be college bound next summer though his passion is in the trades, before he was 2 he knew every tool in his dads master tech tool box by 4 he was helping us renovate houses pulling up floors and by 12 he made friends with a restoration contractor and learned the basics of construction. His gifts are in the trades along with his passion, a trade school won;t be a consolation prize it will be his opportunity to perfect a god given gift in the trades!

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