Keynote: Mike Rowe encourages uncensored approach to jobs crisis

Former ‘guest’ on Dirty Jobs and founder of mikeroweWORKS cautions against institutional marginalization of critically important jobs.

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Mike Rowe believes he knows why the skills gap is widening, infrastructure is crumbling and the education system is making both problems worse.

And he thinks AI is part of the solution. If you, like Rowe’s former boss at The Discovery Channel, believe he is talking about artificial intelligence, well…not quite.

“Artificial insemination is every bit as important as artificial intelligence,” Rowe said during his keynote address on Wednesday. “Just 1.5% of Americans feed all 300 million of us three times a day, in part because of AI.”

When Rowe later spent a day being filmed learning the, shall we say, ins and outs of AI, he soon encountered resistance from television executives. They asserted that significant portions – truly humbling portions – of the footage would have to be pixelated, or blurred out. Rowe fought back, arguing that the admittedly explicit content of the episode fulfilled the core mission of the show.

“It’s about science, real work, and it’s happening all over the world,” he told the executives.

A compromise was eventually reached, and several episodes later there was another pixelation incident involving “a prehensile third leg.” It was several more years before Rowe realized that the efforts to mask the true nature of dirty work were not confined to television studios.

“As a culture, we have ‘pixelated’ entire categories of job opportunities,” he said. “There are real dilemmas facing trade workers, miners, farmers and more. We don’t look at trade schools, two-year schools and community colleges the way we look at four-year colleges, so we don’t look at those jobs the same way.”

When high school students graduate, Rowe says, the table has been set for them with a very specific path that involves a four-year education. But according to the Department of Labor, 75% of the more than 6 million unfilled jobs do not require college. They require training.

The opportunities in materials handling and logistics alone add up to tens of thousands of jobs, he said. The government has a role in redefining the opportunities, and parents are essential to changing our nation’s relationship with work, but the challenge will require even broader effort.

“I think the solution moving forward is associations like this one,” Rowe said. “Just be sure that whatever message you send is fun and engaging and sticky, otherwise you’re just preaching to the choir.”

Rowe’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS, has donated $5 million in scholarships to students attending technical, vocational and trade schools across the country. To be eligible, students must sign the S.W.E.A.T. Pledge, which stands for Skills and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo. Click here to view or download the pledge.


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About the Author
Josh Bond, Senior Editor
Josh Bond is Senior Editor for Modern, and was formerly Modern’s lift truck columnist and associate editor. He has a degree in Journalism from Keene State College and has studied business management at Franklin Pierce University.
<p>Keynote speaker Mike Rowe says Millennials are an easy target, “but we raised them. And we raised them to borrow money they don’t have and can’t pay back to go to school for jobs that don’t exist.”</p>

Keynote speaker Mike Rowe says Millennials are an easy target, “but we raised them. And we raised them to borrow money they don’t have and can’t pay back to go to school for jobs that don’t exist.”

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