Mike Rowe Wants to Help Rewrite the Skilled Trades Story

It’s a question millions of high school seniors face every year: which career should I pursue? Most often, they’re presented with one option: get a four-year degree that carries a potentially high price tag, said Mike Rowe, creator of the TV show “Dirty Jobs.” However, many aren’t aware of another strong choice – a career in the skilled trades – which provides excellent salaries and plenty of opportunities.

“I’m afraid we’ve elevated one form of education above all others, specifically a four-year degree,” said Rowe, a TV host, philanthropist and writer, at the 2021 National Association of Home Builders (NAHB) International Builders’ Show virtual experience (IBSx) in February. “Unfortunately, it came at the expense of the skilled trades.” Rowe told the audience he wants to help rewrite the industry’s narrative around promoting skilled trade jobs.

Business, government can play their part

Both government and the business community can play a role in helping promote the skilled trades. Plumbing Manufacturers International (PMI) and many of its members are already working to support and amplify the value of those jobs. There’s an important connection between skilled trades and the plumbing manufacturing industry – as plumbers and contractors install PMI members’ products in homes and businesses across the country. Some PMI members have offered scholarships, supported apprenticeship programs, and funded educational assistance to address the shortage of skilled labor in the industry.

To attract students to the plumbing manufacturing field, PMI member Viega runs a Manufacturing Apprenticeship Program at its McPherson, Kan., facility. Students selected for the program receive a paid position working in Viega’s plastics, metals, machining or maintenance divisions and a three-year associate’s degree paid-in-full by Viega with the potential to earn other employee benefits, reported the McPherson Sentinel. Graduates of Viega’s apprenticeship program are offered a full-time position, too.

Meanwhile, PMI recently joined others in the industry to encourage Senate approval of a bill supporting national apprenticeships, which have been proven to help many secure good-paying skilled trade jobs. The National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 (H.R. 447), recently passed with bi-partisan support in the House of Representatives, seeks to reauthorize the 1937 National Apprenticeship Act, which established the registered apprenticeship system. Provisions such as progressive wage increases, mentorship and safety standards would be codified into the new law. Authorization of $400 million to $800 million in new grant funding through the bill would allow expansion of apprenticeship programs.

“Plumbing manufacturers provide skilled, good-paying jobs in communities across America, but the shortage of well-trained, skilled workers is real,” said PMI CEO Kerry Stackpole. “Our manufacturers produce 90% of all plumbing products sold in the nation. To strengthen America’s manufacturing sector, we need to utilize all the tools and resources available to help us attract and train new talent, including apprenticeships. The expanded opportunities to registered apprenticeships, youth apprenticeships, and pre-apprenticeships made available through the National Apprenticeship Act of 2021 will help close the skilled workers gap and shortage of plumbers, create good-paying jobs in our communities, and help aid in our country’s economic recovery.”

Apprenticeships deliver high success rates. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that 94% of people who complete registered apprenticeships retain jobs by the time they finish the program and earn an average starting salary of around $70,000 annually.

Bring back shop class, educate kids earlier

Rowe acknowledged that misperceptions about a career in the skilled trades are keeping people from exploring those opportunities. Myths run the gamut – from the work is unfulfilling and dirty to the pay is low.

What’s more, parents and school guidance counselors don’t necessarily keep plumbing and construction jobs top-of-mind. When asked if they would advise their child to pursue a career in construction, 70% of parents said they wouldn’t, according to a survey by the National Center for Construction Education & Research.

Parents and kids need to be better educated about the value and payoff that a career in the trades can deliver. “We need better PR,” Rowe said. “How do we change the message and how do we rebrand this so that starting in middle school, not necessarily even high school, we get shop class back and things like that, where this is looked at as not just an alternative, but a viable career path?”

The high cost of education is something many parents and students worry about. Current student loan debt sits at $1.6 trillion, reported The Wall Street Journal.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of jobs in the trades. “There are more than seven million open jobs, so obviously I’ve made things worse,” Rowe joked as he described the challenge in filling skilled positions. He called attention to his Mike Rowe Works Foundation, which gives away millions of dollars in work ethic scholarships annually to the next generation of skilled workers. “You’d be amazed how hard it is to give away a million dollars,” he said, noting that the money is available, but people aren’t taking advantage of it.

With government and business support and help from industry groups like PMI, the negative overtones surrounding skilled trade careers can be lifted – opening the door to another strong career option for high school seniors.