Election 2012

Mike Rowe dons clean clothes, attends Romney business roundtable

Mike Rowe dons clean clothes, attends Romney business roundtable

A few weeks ago, Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs,” sent an open letter to Mitt Romney about the importance of skilled trade labor.  He offered to help Romney launch “a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce,” with an emphasis on getting young people to pursue trade careers – the real “shovel-ready jobs.”

Rowe sent a similar letter to Barack Obama in 2008, but never received a reply.  Romney did respond, and now Rowe is set to attend an economic roundtable with Romney in Bedford Heights, Ohio on Wednesday afternoon.  The Cleveland Plain Dealer reports that Rowe will “offer his support” to Romney at the event, and will meet with him personally beforehand, although it’s not clear if Rowe will offer an outright endorsement of Romney’s presidential campaign.

Mike Rowe is not a typical celebrity endorsement.  He lives the jobs he’s talking about, and has a great deal of well-earned credibility with blue-collar Americans… and the white-collar Americans who have grown fascinated by a world they sense has become too far separated from their own daily lives.  His perspective on the importance of trade work is very different from the conventional wisdom about rolling through college and emerging with massive debt, which has become increasingly disproportionate to the increase in job prospects.

An interesting data point along these lines appears in an article from the Chicago Sun-Times today, in which it is noted that “Low-wage workers in Chicago are better educated, older and rely more on that income these days to meet basic needs than 10 years ago.  And there are substantially more of them.”

It’s part of America’s ongoing transition to a shrunken, part-time workforce.  A report from the University of Illinois “revealed the share of payroll employees ages 18 to 64 working in low-wage jobs rose from 23.8 percent in 2011 to 31.2 percent last year. That’s a more than a 30 percent rise in the proportion of such workers.”  Assistant professor Marc Doussard, author of the report, described it as “compelling evidence that as the number of jobs shrinks, people are forced to chase lower and lower paying jobs.”

It’s a trend that has been in progress since the end of the Clinton recession, but it’s been accelerating in recent years, creating an increasingly tough environment for justifying those fantastically expensive college degrees, sold to young people with low subsidized interest rates.  The security of apprenticeship and skilled labor – which can generate more immediate profit for small business operations, leading to more small business expansion and formation – is an alternative worthy of exploration.

And as Rowe’s open letter to Romney emphasized, those jobs need doing.  There are plenty of employers, even in this high-unemployment economy, who have trouble finding enough people who are willing to get dirty.  Those jobs cannot be outsourced, and they naturally lend themselves to stable, full-time, long-term employment.  Few contractors relish the thought of losing their best, most experienced tradesmen.  And learning trade skills leads to a much earlier beginning to a productive career, as opposed to racking up debt in college while entry to the full-time workforce is delayed for years.  This can have major repercussions across the length of a long working lifetime.

None of this is to say that college education is unnecessary or irrelevant.  It’s just not supposed to be universally necessary for gainful, productive employment.  It’s being used to patch up the inadequacies of high-school education, burdening people with life-changing levels of debt (at the hands of very energetic government debt collectors) and obscuring society’s ability to perceive necessary, advantageous, and deeply honorable opportunities.

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