Mike Rowe: Live, without a net

By Adam Freill

Asking Mike Rowe to describe his occupation is an interesting task. As the host of Dirty Jobs on the Discovery Network and Discovery Canada, he’s tried his hand at more than 300 careers, and boy have his hands gotten dirty.

“I’m an apprentice, a perpetual apprentice, and Dirty Jobs is Ground Hog Day in a sewer,” he laughed during a recent interview from his home in San Francisco. “I’ve committed to chronicling my ongoing failures.”

The show has had Mike do everything from cleaning out boilers and smashing toilets to harvesting geoduck (a species of very large, edible, saltwater clam) waist-deep in muck. Through it all though, he retains his great sense of humour, and brings out the best in the people whose livelihoods he’s profiling.

“I think the reason that the show has done well is that, unlike every other show on TV, we leave at the end of the day. There are very few shows on right now that spend the amount of time we spend in one day, and no matter how good or how bad it goes, just leave,” he explains. “If we meet a plumber and he’s a character and we spend 12 hours plumbing together, well, we have five cameras going and we’ll find something to have a laugh at and learn some things, and that’s really the only mission. And then we’ll move on to the next one.”

For a typical shoot, he’ll spend a day on a job site, working without an agenda, shoot sheet or script, and they never do a second take. “The thing that I knew intuitively, just from growing up around guys who work,” he explains, “is that if you can get out of your own way, and just let these people be themselves, there’s always a surprising level of humour and intelligence that’s alive and well on the site. My job is to make sure that it still feels like a site and not a set.”

He likes to claim that Dirty Jobs is a talk show, but with a constantly changing set, and a few other subtle differences, “I don’t have a band, and the only suits I own are rubber or Tyvek.”

Celebrating the nobility of work

Originally sold to Discovery Network as a set of three one-hour “truly unscripted shows about the kind of people my grandfather knew and worked with, and was,” Dirty Jobs wasn’t supposed to be a regularly scheduled show, but after the first episodes ran, the network received letters, more than 10,000 of them, with suggestions for jobs to feature, so it worked its way into a more regular spot in 2003 and 2004.

“It did well, and it got some people’s attention, but it didn’t really blow up until the economy went sideways – around 2007 down here,” recalls Rowe. “In a lot of ways the headlines caught up with the themes of the show. Dirty Jobs is a very simple show, but the underlying themes are kind of universal: the definition of a good job; the notion of the nobility of work; the willingness to get dirty – all those things.”

Thanks, grand-dad

One of the biggest inspirations behind the show Dirty Jobs was Mike’s grandfather, who Rowe says, “was hardwired into the trades.”

Despite dropping out of school early to join the workforce, Rowe explains that his grandfather, a “classic tradesman,” had developed a mastery of plumbing, electrical work, architecture, and much more by his mid-30s.

“I very much wanted to follow in his footsteps. I took all the vocational technical classes and I paid careful attention to everything that he and my dad did around the farm, and the truth is, I just did not get the gene. I am just not that guy,” says Mike. “Every trade class I took I loved, but it just did not come naturally to me.”

When he was in high school, his grandfather told him, “You really need to figure out getting a different tool box.” Taking that advice, the young Rowe went to community college to study acting.

Giving back and building up

The stars of Dirty Jobs come from all sectors of industry, but there are a number of common challenges among the companies profiled and apprenticed, including the ability to attract new people into the trades.

“I reached out to the fans of Dirty Jobs and said, ‘Why don’t we build a trades resource centre?’ Let’s do something online that helps make a case for pursuing a career in the trades and offers something useful for parents and kids who want to sit down and have that conversation,” says Rowe. “That’s how mikeroweWORKS.com started, just as a trade resource centre, where you could make a case – online – for the trades.”

As luck might have it, Mike seemed to strike a chord once again, and a number of companies reached out to ask how they could help.

“I started having some really grown-up conversations with CEOs of companies like Grainger, Ford and Caterpillar,” he laughs.

Seeking fans, not advocates

In Mike’s part of the world, the going rate to hire a plumber is around $200 per hour, and he says that it can be hard to find one who has time even at that charge-out rate. That might be good for the tradesman, but the scarcity of professionals could be foreboding.

“In my world, the plumber is going to be just fine. The problem is people who are addicted to indoor toilets. Those people are going to have an issue when they need a plumber because he’s not going to be on standby. And if he is, he is going t o cost more per hour than a psychiatrist,” he muses. “In a world where you can’t get a plumber, electrician or a good contractor to come to your home to help you do a thing for a reasonable amount of money, that’s the place we get to right before we flick the switch and the lights don’t go on.”

That’s what he finds most troubling, and was part of the motivation to help cast a positive spotlight on the value that the trades bring to society as we know it.

“We are not properly gobsmacked by the miracle that happens when you flick the light and it actually comes on,” he says. “We’re going in the wrong direction as a society.”

But he doesn’t think that plumbers and electricians preaching to young people will do much to change how students feel about the trades, and to get them to consider trades training among their options as their high school careers transition to post-secondary training.

“Part of what I try to do, on mikeroweWORKS, person-to-person, or in front of a crowd, is to make the distinction between an advocate for the trades and what the trades really need. What they need, are fans,” he explains.

“By that, I mean they need people in the masses who are aware that their lives would be unrecognizable without tradesmen, and that the work the tradesmen do is beyond them. What we need to do is to challenge people who are not in the trades to feel differently when they flush the toilet and watch the crap go away.”

Up for the challenge, to a point

Mike’s latest outings landed him looking for interesting jobs to try in Australia.

“I spent a month there, and Dirty Down Under will live up to its name,” he reports, laughingly adding, “Melbourne is my favourite place down there, but we didn’t go to any of my favourite places.”

His visit to Coober Pedy and the opal mines in the Northern Territory actually presented him with a task that was one of the rare times that he’s balked at a job. 

To mine for the precious stones a drill bit about the size of a manhole cover is run straight down about 80 feet into the ground. If the operator hits sandstone and soapstone, which is where opals are typically found, then the operator goes down in the hole, lowered down on a bosun’s chair with the dirt on either side tight enough to touch both shoulders.

“It is a tight fit, and you are lowered all the way to the bottom,” says Rowe, who likens the experience of being at the bottom of the hole to what it might be like if one were stuck in a giant Coke bottle looking up, way up, to the small opening at the top of the bottle, hoping nobody puts the cap back on the bottle. “I have no problem with heights and I’m really not that claustrophobic, but I don’t want to be buried alive. There are limits.”


Launched on Labour Day, September 1, in 2008, www.mikeroweWORKS.com is designed to challenge the notion that a four-year degree is the only path to a worthwhile career. The listed mission of the site is: “To promote the skilled trades in areas of public awareness, reducing stigmas, education, career planning and job opportunities, as well as supporting organizations that get us there.”

To help forward the cause, the site includes a public forum with thousands of links to trade resources, scholarships, apprenticeships, fellowships and vocational schools, tools that can be used by anyone wanting to explore a career in the construction or technical trades. The forum also houses a discussion board where topics relevant to the trades can be shared and debated.

If you would like to contribute to the dialogue, hit the site and post at the Water Cooler, or send an e-mail to [email protected].

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