America’s dirty work

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2009

America’s dirty work

Marketplace Staff Sep 7, 2009


Tess Vigeland: On Friday the Labor Department issued the latest unemployment figures. You may have heard that another 215,000 workers lost their jobs just last month. More than half of those were in the construction and manufacturing industries. America’s “dirty jobs,” if you will. Mike Rowe argues that we are all losing something as those jobs disappear. He’s the creator, producer, and host of the Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs.”

Mike’s done everything from coal mining to maggot farming and far beyond. Last year, on Labor Day, he launched a Web site called “Mike Rowe Works,” dedicated to the folks we’re supposed to be saluting on this day. Mike, welcome to the program.

Mike Rowe: Thanks Tess.

Vigeland: May I ask, what you are doing today, Labor Day?

Rowe: I’m working. What are you doing?

Vigeland: I’m working too.

Rowe: What else would I do, Tess? I’ve worked. We’ve literally been shooting this show almost daily for the last five years. Today is a little more laid back, I do think there’s going to be a frosty beverage in my future, maybe a barbecue. But there’ll be work after that.

Vigeland: All right. Sounds good. Well you launched this Web site a year ago, dedicated to celebrating America’s blue-collar work. Why?

Rowe: My conscience was maybe a little troubled because “Dirty Jobs” has been really good to me. And it only works because regular people with regular jobs invite me into their homes, let me spend a day with them, basically shadowing them as an apprentice. And after a couple hundred of those, it became pretty obvious — to me anyway — that I was hearing the same stories week after week after week. And surprisingly, most of the people I met were having a better time than most of my friends. And you just don’t expect to be on your belly in a sewer laughing. And yet, there I was. And I began to ask myself, and the viewers too, what might people with “dirty jobs” know that we don’t?

Vigeland: Well you talk on the Web site, you say that our society has slowly redefined what it means to have a good job. How and why do you think that happened?

Rowe: You go into a bookstore and you look at the best sellers, titles like “The 4-Hour Workweek.” You turn on the TV and you look at a typical portrayal of a plumber, and he’s 300lbs with a giant butt crack. And example after example we see disparaging, simplistic, one-dimensional notions of work. And we begin to imagine the people who do these kinds of jobs in our mind’s eye as very specific caricatures, and they’re not.

Vigeland: What do you hear from the people that you work with in these jobs — Do they feel cut out from the national conversation?

Rowe: I wouldn’t say the people that I work with feel excluded from a national conversation, but I would say that they see themselves as being in on the joke. It’s sort of an awareness that you find in the guy that picks up roadkill. He knows, for instance, that if he and his pals all called out stick for two weeks interstate trucking and commerce stops. He knows this. You know, the statistics bear it out.

Vigeland: You mentioned earlier on that you have a pretty nice job. But I wonder, any of these “dirty jobs” that you think you might actually want to do?

Rowe: I mean I’m in awe of many of them, really. But my own personal biography, unfortunately, is not ideally suited to that pursuit. I grew up in a small farm in Baltimore. My grandparents were next door, and my grandfather was one of those guys born hard-wired to build a house without a blueprint, to build an engine. He just knew how to fix stuff. And I didn’t get the gene. And it actually drove me into entertainment because I was tired of failing at all of these typical, blue-collar jobs.

Vigeland: But now you get to do all of them.

Rowe: Now I don’t know how to make it stop, Tess — 252 so far, but who’s counting?

Vigeland: Mike Rowe is the creator, producer and host of the Discovery Channel’s great, great show “Dirty Jobs.” Mike, it’s been real fun talking to you. Thanks for being on the show.

Rowe: Tess, I’m honored that you called, and back to work.

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