By Stuart Singer, veteran math teacher and author of The Algebra Miracle
You may not think you know Mike Rowe but you probably do.
He is that very likeable fellow wearing the baseball hat in numerous Ford commercials. He was also the host of 169 episodes of the highly successful Discovery Channel show “Dirty Jobs” as well as the narrator of that network’s “Deadliest Catch”. If, however, you think you really know Rowe from that television work you would probably be wrong. He is not exactly the blue-collar guy projected in his advertisements or television programs. His resume includes a college degree in the fine arts and a stint as a vocalist with the Baltimore Opera. His first job in television was as the host of the San Francisco version of “Entertainment Tonight”.
Now that his commitments to his two shows are completed, Rowe is turning his attention to education. An appearance on the July 12, 2013 “Real Time with Bill Maher” and an investigation of Rowe’s multiple websites clearly indicate that he has some interesting thoughts on the state of education in this country and the direction it should take.
Hard work vs. smart work
In his appearance on the Maher show and other interviews Rowe has raised grave concerns for the future of the American workforce and places much of the responsibility directly on the educational system. He has produced a website mikeroweWORKS.com where he takes to task his personal school experiences and the current unemployment issues.
Rowe’s contention is simple: There are 12 million unemployed people in this country at a time when there are 3 million unfilled jobs. He believes that the problem is that many of those jobs are considered unacceptable. “It’s a symptom of a bigger problem,” Rowe says. “It’s the way we look at work. It’s the way we approach our vocation and the degree to which we assign our identity to what we do.”
For Rowe a defining moment in his view of education occurred during a visit to a high school counselor’s office. On the wall was a poster featuring two individuals. The smiling one on the left was dressed in a cap and gown while holding a diploma. Opposite that image was a man who appeared to be a weary laborer carrying a heavy tool belt slung over his right shoulder. The caption read “Work Smart NOT Hard”. The message according to Rowe was clear:
“In the long history of bad advice, you’d have to look pretty hard to find something dumber than this. And yet, the expression is still with us. Google Work Smart Not Hard and you’ll see just how far this idiotic cliché has wormed it’s way into our collective conscious over the last forty years. It’s repeated daily by millions of people like some timeless chestnut of conventional wisdom. Is it possible we actually believe such nonsense? You bet it is.
“Consider the reality of today’s job market. We have a massive skills gap. Even with record unemployment, millions of skilled jobs are unfilled because no one is trained or willing to do them. Meanwhile unemployment among college graduates is at an all-time high, and the majority of those graduates with jobs are not even working in their field of study. Plus, they owe a trillion dollars in student loans. A trillion! And still, we push a four-year college degree as the best way for the most people to find a successful career?
“The evidence suggests we’ve taken some very bad advice, and tried to separate hard work from success. Consequently, we’ve become profoundly disconnected from a critical part of our workforce. The skilled part. The part that keeps the lights on. That’s just crazy. In a sane world, there should be posters hanging in high schools that reflect the reality the situation we’re in. Wouldn’t it make more sense to promote Work Smart AND Hard.”
Some thoughts to consider
The take home message for high school educators is that there is a need for reevaluating the “one-size fits all” approach to post high school education. Every statistical analysis shows that a four-year degree will generate more income over a lifetime than the lack of one. But a college diploma may not be a viable reality for everyone and in truth not all four-year degrees are equal. As Rowe pointed out on the Maher show while STEM degrees are a proven path to financial success, twice as many degrees in the fine arts are earned each year in this country.
After watching and reading the views of Mike Rowe a number of thoughts come to mind. Most are not new; they have been written about in the past but may be worthy of some reconsideration. Such a conversation normally requires equal parts of idealism and realism but for today the focus will be on the more optimistic side. Why not let the joy of possibilities percolate for a period of time before the hard work of implementation is considered.
Tuition-free community colleges: There are two crushing components to the American economy that are intertwined—unemployment and college loan debt. Too many students are making employment decisions based on the need to repay money borrowed to finance their education. With daunting monthly payments looming, some individuals find living at home and continuing to search for employment a better option than taking a position that will not afford them a living wage and the funds necessary to repay their creditors. Offering individuals free schooling which can translate into the first two years of an undergraduate degree or a full Associate’s could dramatically change that narrative for both of those groups. Four-year college graduates would cut their debt by nearly 50% and could comfortably accept jobs that have lower starting salaries. Those earning a two-year degree would likewise be able to afford entering the workforce as an apprentice knowing that the income in such trades escalates quickly with each year of successful work experience.
Obviously the cost of such a program would be high but the rewards may well surpass the expense.
Increase and improve technical training in public schools: There needs to be a greater emphasis on high school courses that provide the tools necessary to participate in the job market of 2013 and beyond. Classes that either will lead to employment upon graduation or provide the framework of an Associate’s degree must be available. A diploma that includes a license in cosmetology, certification in engine repair or the first major steps toward a career in bookkeeping, nursing or IT must be available and more importantly as in the words of Mike Rowe “desirable”.
Gone must be the days of using the “shop wing” to banish poor students. These courses must be promoted with the same enthusiasm as the ones found in the college track. Such an approach will require some significant changes in the mindset of many in education.
But hard work cannot be the enemy of a smart approach to education.