We've got a PR problem.

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What's the problem?

We've made work the enemy.

America has become slowly but undeniably disconnected from the most fundamental elements of civilization—food, energy, education, and the very nature of work itself.

Over the last 30 years, America has convinced itself that the best path for the most people is an expensive, four-year degree. Pop culture has glorified the “corner office job” while unintentionally belittling the jobs that helped build the corner office. As a result, our society has devalued any other path to success and happiness. Community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs are labeled as “alternative.” Millions of well-intended parents and guidance counselors see apprenticeships and on-the-job training opportunities as “vocational consolation prizes,” best suited for those not cut out for the brass ring: a four-year degree. The push for higher education has coincided with the removal of vocational arts from high schools nationwide. And the effects of this one-two punch have laid the foundation for a widening skills gap and massive student loan debt.

Today, the skills gap is wider than it’s ever been. The cost of college tuition has soared faster than the cost of food, energy, real estate, and health care. Student loan debt is the second highest consumer debt category in the United States with more than 44 million borrowers who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are more than 7 million jobs available across the country, the majority of which don’t require 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. We keep lending money we don’t have to people who can’t pay it back for jobs that don’t exist. Bit by bit, our culture reaffirms the misguided belief that a career in the skilled trades shouldn’t be desired. And that lack of enthusiasm has reshaped our expectations of a “good job” into something that no longer resembles work.

$ Trillion
in student loan debt
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Why does Mike give a crap?

He's addicted to paved roads, working electricity, and flushing toilets.

As an apprentice on the TV series Dirty Jobs, Mike Rowe traveled to every state and worked with plumbers, electricians, steamfitters, pipefitters, brick layers, farmers, fishers, and a bunch of other skilled workers who help keep our polite society humming along. They were individuals who found opportunity where no one else thought to look. They were entrepreneurs running successful businesses. They were happy people who managed to figure out a positive work-life balance. To his surprise, they didn’t resemble the unflattering, blue-collar workers often portrayed in the media. This misperception resulted in an undeniable disparity between available skilled jobs and the unemployed local population. Week after week, Mike saw “Help Wanted” signs everywhere, even when unemployment took over news headlines. Our society didn’t, and still doesn’t, have a trained workforce standing by or willing to fill the positions that actually exist.

“Our crumbling infrastructure, our widening skills gap, the disappearance of vocational education, and the stratospheric rise in college tuition—these are not problems,” Mike said. “These are symptoms of what we value. And right now, we have to reconnect the average American with the value of a skilled workforce. Only then, will the next generation aspire to do the work at hand.”

In 2008, Mike created the mikeroweWORKS Foundation to launch a national PR campaign for skilled labor…more like a one-man crusade.

How do we change the prevailing misperception of skilled labor?

Make work cool again.

At the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, we’re on a mission to help close the skills gap by challenging the stigmas and stereotypes that discourage people from pursuing the millions of available jobs. We’re redefining the definition of a good education and a good job, because we don’t think a four-year degree is the best path for the most people. We want people to understand the impact of skilled labor on their lives, and we’re convinced that the solution has to start with a new appreciation for hard work.

Each year, we give away a modest pile of money through the Work Ethic Scholarship Program to help people get trained for skilled jobs that are in demand. We’ve proven that opportunities in the trades aren’t alternatives to viable careers – they are viable careers. Through this program, we encourage people to learn a useful skill, and we reward those who demonstrate that they’ll work their butts off. When it comes to hard work, there is no alternative. Since our inception, we’ve granted, or helped facilitate the granting of, more than $5 million in Work Ethic scholarships and other like-minded programs or initiatives that also work to close the skills gap.

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How do we define work ethic?

The S.W.E.A.T. Pledge.

Back in 2008, Mike wanted to find a way to articulate the qualities he values most. He ended up writing The S.W.E.A.T. Pledge, which stands for “Skills and Work Ethic Aren’t Taboo.” It’s a collection of beliefs that outlines the importance of work ethic, personal responsibility, delayed gratification, and a positive attitude that we believe every worker can benefit from embracing it. Full disclosure—it’s not for everyone, and that’s okay with us. But anyone who applies for the Work Ethic Scholarship Program must agree with and sign it.

How about some good advice?

In the long history of bad advice, you’d have to look pretty hard to find something dumber than Work Smart Not Hard.

In 1977, a version of this poster hung in my guidance counselor’s office and was part of a recruitment campaign for college. It was bad advice then, but today, it’s just plain dangerous. Google, “Work Smart Not Hard,” and you’ll see just how far this idiotic cliché has wormed its 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 aren’t even working in their field of study. Plus, they collectively owe $1.5 trillion in student loans. $1.5 TRILLION! And still, we push a four-year 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 of the situation we’re in. Wouldn’t it make more sense to promote Work Smart AND Hard?

So…with a little creative license (and no respect for the original), I’m pleased to present a new platitude with a different attitude. And if you’d like to help spread the word, I’ll try to talk you into buying one. Posters are $12, or as much as you want to give, and all proceeds go to the mikeroweWORKS Foundation.

"We don't have American icons anymore. We have American idols."

- Mike Rowe

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