Jobs: Dirty & Otherwise

Mike Rowe, host of the wonderful television show Dirty Jobs and the other unknowing half of my secret bromance, testified in front of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on Wednesday this week. He was testifying about the importance of skilled and vocational education in the United States. Salient quote:

In high schools, the vocational arts have all but vanished. We’ve elevated the importance of "higher education" to such a lofty perch that all other forms of knowledge are now labeled "alternative." Millions of parents and kids see apprenticeships and on-the-job-training opportunities as "vocational consolation prizes," best suited for those not cut out for a four-year degree. And still, we talk about millions of "shovel ready" jobs for a society that doesn’t encourage people to pick up a shovel.

In a hundred different ways, we have slowly marginalized an entire category of critical professions, reshaping our expectations of a "good job" into something that no longer looks like work. A few years from now, an hour with a good plumber if you can find one is going to cost more than an hour with a good psychiatrist. At which point we’ll all be in need of both.

It’s worth reading his entire testimony if you have a chance. It’s very short and to the point.

As I was reading his words this afternoon, I was thinking back to when I was a teenager and my parents had me tested for an aptitude or career or whatever it was called. The testing was done over at Drexel University and had all kinds of problems on it: word, numbers, shapes, logic, and so forth. When the results came, there were two occupations that scored highest.

Before I reveal them, go on and take a wild guess as to what they could be. I don’t think anything will guess either of them. Seriously. Go on and guess.

From their extensive testing, my intellect, talent, and abilities were judged to be best suited for… plumber or advertisement executive.

Now, upon hearing this news, imagine two adults and one teenager simultaneously giving each other the squinty eyed “WTF?” look. This was news to all of us for at the time I had an interest in the sciences (even though I was taking honors math and AP history, go figure). Even as a kid, I had never showed an interest in anything like that; my previous kid ideas for a future career before the science interest were auto mechanic and architect.

Plumbing? Marketing? What?

In reading that testimony today, I thought back to that career aptitude test. I think I would have been happy (and certainly more school loan debt free) as a plumber; I’m not sure I can say the same about advertising executive but I’d like to imagine that I’d be good at it. Perhaps I have found ways to use those aptitudes for the field of librarianship. (Isn’t finding and making hidden pipe connections behind walls kind of like making connections between two resources that aren’t necessarily obvious? Isn’t building brand and reaching out to different markets a lot like the advocacy we do [or try to do] at the library?)

What Mike said reminds me of the Ken Robinson “Do schools kill creativity? TED Talk that I’ve linked to before. There is an emphasis on pushing toward academic achievement when the individual’s interests and talents indicate otherwise. And now there is evidence that we are doing it to the detriment of the trade skills and the future of manufacturing in this country.

For myself, I’ve always advised people to go after what interests them; if it doesn’t lead to college, then so be it. College is nice and I certainly had a good time but it is not necessary for all the different talents and careers that are out there. It might take require taking the year after high school to wander, but it’s a year well spent if it gives a person a better sense of career direction. The idea that there isn’t time, that people need to hurry up and start their lives by going down this rote academic path, is absolutely ridiculous. And I hope within my lifetime that will change.

When I was talking with my father about the Mike Rowe testimony, he recalled what the commencement speaker said to his class at his graduation from Williams College. It went something along the lines of saying that “while [they] were lucky to get this liberal arts education, it was not something that should allow them to look down upon people who did not have it. The world needs philosophers, but it also needs plumbers. For if the philosophers tried to take up plumbing and the plumbers tried to take up philosophy, that neither would be able to hold water. Each role is important and necessary to the continued functioning of society at large.” I thought that was a marvelous sentiment.

There was certainly a “Road Less Traveled” moment for me in thinking about this. Would the term “mover & shaker” be a term for a pipe that vibrates violently when the toilet flushes upstairs? Would I still have an award winning blog, even if that award was coming from Marketing Today? Perhaps. At any rate, I still get to investigate strange smells reported to the staff (it can never smell like lavender, can it?) and I do get to write press releases and design publicity materials. I guess that’s close enough. It may not be a dirty job, but it does work for me.

(Note: Mike also wrote an op-ed piece for Politico.)

12 thoughts on “Jobs: Dirty & Otherwise

  1. I’m going to say something that is even less popular than “maybe vocational fields are the best fit for some people” :

    Maybe a 4-year degree should not be considered a ticket to a white-color job.

    A 4-year degree should teach people to think critically, teach them to be good citizens, teach them to be curious about the world, but it should not inherently mean ruling out manual employment or so-called dirty jobs. Further, the expectation that a 4-year degree = a “better” job might actually hurt rigorous bachelor’s programs and prop up departments such as Business or Advertising which otherwise might not be seen as courses of serious study. (No offense to any readers who pursued those degrees & are amazing people; I’m sure that can happen too.)

    • When I went to Australia, one of the things that struck me is that they mostly have 3 year degrees. They don’t make their students take at-some-distance or general courses; they just take things within their major. While I liked some of my general classes, overall it felt like a waste. I can’t even think of one that was memorable or useful.

      It’s a strange balance of ‘enough education to properly train someone’ and ‘we should have some standards for this stuff’. And I think it should start tipping towards the former, personally.

      • Ha, that’s funny because it’s the exact reverse of my experience — I wish I had been able to take more general courses. I wasn’t mature enough at the time (although I never would have admitted it) to be on a track, and I ended up enjoying classes like the History of Western Music much more than those required for my major (journalism).

  2. Hear hear! I have long thought that our system of “everyone should go to college” is flawed. There are so many careers that would be better served by an apprenticeship than by years of university. I also think that, like Olivia gets at in her comment, the notion that every white collar job needs a 4-year degree doesn’t make sense, either.

    I, too, love what I do and am happy with my career as it continues to evolve (currently delighted to be a middle manager and not looking to change that anytime soon), but who knows? I can easily imagine that as a high school senior, I might have chosen an apprenticeship rather than college if there had been any opportunities.

    Good post.

    • Indeed. I can remember meeting some of the freshmen in my various college years and wondering why the hell they were here. I guess it was because it was expected of them, but it wasn’t something that they seemed to like or enjoy. They really could have done a lot of other things and saved themselves time and money.

  3. Pingback: On the awesomeness of Mike Rowe and my husband « SAU Curriculum Library's Blog

  4. I’m a big fan of taking a year or two off to experience “the real world” and gain some direction after high school. Or maybe we could encourage a year of service — volunteer with the organization of your choice for a year before college. If you then decide to go to college, you will probably be more motivated to excel… At least that was my experience. And if you find that returning to college is as appealing as getting a root canal every day, so be it.

    My brother was that kid who hated school. He now has a 2 year degree from Vatterott, where he got certified in welding. It’s been off and on lately — he got laid off a couple of years ago and worked as a tow truck driver in between welding jobs. I’ve heard disparaging comments about how rough it is for him since he doesn’t have a 4 year degree… But I don’t see how his position is much worse than the PhD who spends years in adjunct-land. (And he recently got in with a new company that tends to keep employees until retirement, so things are looking up!)

    • Yeah, the disparaging remarks about those without four year or higher degrees is unfortunate. I’d say that the perfect retort is that the people who *really* built our shopping, commercial, and financial centers are tradesmen. It’s not like those buildings grew out of the ground of their own accord; lots of people with different skillsets put it together. And if you better have faith in them if you plan on working or living inside of one.

      I’m glad to hear he found a new job!

  5. This post made me think a lot about 2 things: how much we define ourselves by what we do rather than who we are, and how lucky we are to have places like libraries where plumbers can check out Plato & philosophers can get a copy of Pipes for Dummies. Nice post.

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