Mike Rowe Tackles the Labor Challenge

‘Dirty jobs’ host shares how a face-plant in one of America’s grungiest locations inspired him to train tomorrow’s work force.

October 12, 2018

LAS VEGAS – Closing keynote speaker Mike Rowe said his journey to the NACS Show was circuitous and fueled by c-store coffee.

By 2001, when he was hosting a San Francisco TV program called Evening Magazine, Rowe had developed the ability to “create the illusion of competence”—learning just enough about a topic to sound informed on the air. But after taping his show at countless wineries and restaurants, he sought a higher purpose—work that would make his master craftsman grandfather proud.

Rowe asked his boss if he could shoot at a location with real people doing actual work with their hands—somewhere like the San Francisco sewer. He got the OK and jumped headfirst into the assignment, donning a rubber suit and failing to heed the common-sense warnings from his subterranean guide (“Down here in the sewer, it’s best to keep your mouth shut.”)

The morning spent wading through a sewer “filled with everything you’d expect, and all kinds of things you don’t” was brutal, as Rowe tells it. The tunnels brought new surprises at every turn: walls of roaches, a close encounter with a squealing Norwegian rat, a face-first fall into the knee-deep wastewater. His cameraman became violently ill multiple times. Rowe kept losing his show-opening shot and had to move on as the group progressed into the tunnel. He’d failed to do his job.

Rowe decided to forget about the botched shoot and started to enjoy the conversation with the sewer inspector, a former engineer who had quit his desk job to do more hands-on work. Since Rowe couldn’t do his own job, he asked how he could help the inspector do his. He learned to mix mortar, remove rotting bricks and replace them with new ones, chatting with the inspector as they worked side by side. His cameraman kept taping.

A few hours and multiple showers later, Rowe sat down to watch what he expected to be unusable footage. To his surprise, he saw authentic conversation; the sewer was beautifully shot (“the roaches looked amazing”) and the mishaps were Three-Stooges comical.

Rowe describes watching the footage as a moment of peripeteia—the sudden realization when you discover everything you think you know about something is wrong. He had captured something real, coming from the perspective of a subject-matter expert, and this was “transforming,” he said. “For 15 years I’d been impersonating a host. But I realized that I would never, ever do that again.”

The segment aired, and even though many viewers hated it—Rowe ultimately got fired from the station—others told him, “You’ve got to meet my brother … wait until you see what [he does].” The idea for telling these stories on “Dirty Jobs” was born.

Since the Discovery Channel picked up his series, Rowe has spent his career promoting today’s unsung vo-tech heroes. In 2009, Rowe started the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which has helped provide more than $3 million in trade school grants to train hard-working individuals for skilled jobs.

“Our county has 6.6 million jobs right now, open—75% of those jobs don’t require a four-year degree,” Rowe said. “They require training. They require a work ethic. … All this opportunity is sitting there. It’s waiting.”

Rowe understands firsthand the hiring dilemma retailers face. “The country has become profoundly disconnected from the definition of a good job,” Rowe said. When he traveled around the U.S. to shoot “Dirty Jobs,” he’d see record-high unemployment in the headlines. But he’d also see a lot of “Help Wanted” signs.

“Is there a bigger challenge in your industry than recruitment at the moment?” Rowe asked the audience. “If we can find people who are willing to show up early and stay late and put in the time, the opportunity is still there.”

How to solve this issue? Rowe suggested a strategy similar to his own: telling the industry’s story and connecting with people at a fundamental level. “Our country needs a peripetea,” he said. “I can’t drag the whole country through the sewers of San Francisco … but I can tell you that there are an awful lot of people who are very satisfied in their work, who are skilled at what they do.”

Rowe closed by offering to work with the convenience industry in solving the labor issue. “There’s no reason” for the hiring challenge to be what it is, he said. “If there’s anything my foundation can do to help you in the future, I’m at your disposal,” he said.

For a no-holds-barred interview with Mike Rowe—in which he discusses labor and shares his favorite c-store items—see the September issue of NACS Magazine.