The Significance of the Skilled Trades

Mike Rowe, the king of dirty jobs, shines the spotlight on Iowa’s Skilled Trades efforts.

Typically only 10-year-old boys would enjoy a discussion that involved excrement, roaches, and vomit. Especially if the tale were told over the dinner table. But when the storyteller is someone as entertaining as Mike Rowe, and the audience is a hall full of men and women who are used to getting their hands dirty, somehow it works.

That was the case Thursday evening, September 28, when Mike Rowe, the host of Dirty Jobs, was the keynote speaker at the first Skilled Trades Alliance dinner.

The evening’s activities began with networking from 4 to 6 p.m. More than a dozen exhibitors had the opportunity to highlight their businesses and schools with students and educators interested in the skilled trades. As the dinner began, Governor Kim Reynolds spoke about the passion she has for creating a competitive business environment in Iowa for small businesses like those represented in the audience.

One way the state is accomplishing that is through programs like those the Skilled Trades Alliance advocates—apprenticeships that bring talented young people into the industry.

“We have more than 8,000 active apprenticeships in Iowa right now, and that’s almost doubled since 2011,” Reynolds said. She added that Iowa is in the top five states for apprenticeship opportunities in 2017.

Another program the governor was excited to highlight was the Future Ready Iowa Initiative, which “systematically connects the classroom to the real world with a results-driven approach to training young people for careers.” Reynolds noted that the skilled trades, which have an average starting salary of $60,000, are key to creating viable employment for Iowa’s young people.

When Mike Rowe took the stage later in the evening, he echoed much of what Governor Reynolds had so say.

“There are 6.2 million employment opportunities out there right now. Seventy-five percent of them require training, but no degree,” he said. Yet schools, parents, and even many employers continue to encourage students to go to a four-year college and start their working life with a massive burden of debt.

Rowe said that despite his education and his years of employment prior to Dirty Jobs, his education really began when the Discovery Channel picked up that show and gave him the chance to “meet men and women who make civilized life possible for the rest of us.”

He regaled the audience with the story of how Dirty Jobs came to be, which had to be the most inglorious, hilariously repulsive path to success in history. But it was that project that placed him front and center when the economic downturn occurred in 2008 and employers were still struggling to fill open positions.

“The single biggest challenge facing business owners was finding someone to fill the job, show up, stay late, and get the job done,” Rowe said. “More often it was a lack of will, not a lack of opportunity, that kept those openings from being filled.”

To address that gap, Rowe founded mikeroweWORKS (see “mikeroweWORKS”) to shine a light on the good jobs that actually exist and to make it possible for young people to pursue those careers.

“What you have here in Des Moines with this Skilled Trades Alliance and the programs at Central Campus—I’ve never seen anything like this. This is important. This, right here, is the solution, and you need to make sure the rest of the country hears about it.”

Earlier in the day, Rowe had toured Central Campus, met with students involved in some of the apprentice-track programs available, and visited with representatives from the Skilled Trades Alliance. One of those representatives was Gary Scrutchfield of Lumbermans Drywall and Roofing.

“Mike’s comments about this were spot-on,” Scrutchfield said. “He’s genuine to the core and really understands the problems we’re facing and the importance of educating young people. This program is what it is because of communication and partnership between the construction industry and the schools. Both have needs, and together we can meet those needs.”

Scrutchfield said one of the features of the Central Campus programs that especially impressed Rowe was the emphasis on hands-on learning. “We showed him the nursing program first, then the culinary arts and marine biology departments. Before we even got to the construction trades, he’d complimented us on the fact that 20 percent of the curriculum was class instruction and 80 percent was hands-on, real-world learning. He said this was the kind of thing we needed to sell to the rest of the country.”

Brandon Patterson of Real Estate Concepts, who spearheaded the planning for this event, said Rowe was excited about the apprentice-track program available through Central Campus, which he saw as unique. “People who aren’t familiar with the program or what it’s taken to get it to this point describe this as an overnight success because the Skilled Trades Alliance relationship with the schools is fairly new. But people like Gary Scrutchfield have been working on this for 20 years,” Patterson said.
Rowe observed during his talk that when U.S. schools removed “work” from view in high schools, denigrating the vocational arts, they effectively communicated to kids that those fields weren’t important and weren’t valid careers to pursue.

Scrutchfield said, “Our goal with the Skilled Trades Alliance was to help create a program where educators and students alike could understand the opportunities available on this path. This is life-changing for people when they realize that there’s a good living to be made in the trades and that you can complete an apprenticeship program with no debt.”

Patterson added, “Aiddy Phomvisay and the teachers at Central Campus and the rest of the members of the Skilled Trades Alliance have been working toward this for a long time. And it was great to see them excited about showing off the program to Mike Rowe. He was really impressed.”

“We can control the way we talk about work and opportunity,” Rowe said. “I dragged you through the sewer tonight to demonstrate my point. But I learned that morning in the sewers of San Francisco the joy that comes from completing a thing, from recognizing that your work matters and people depend on it.”

Anyone involved in the construction industry already understands that, but the trip through the sewers with Mike Rowe as guide was worth every grimace-inducing detail.

mikeroweWORKS Foundation

Mike Rowe’s charitable foundation, called mikeroweWORKS, was founded to reward “people with a passion to get trained for skilled jobs that actually exist.”

The foundation raised nearly $1 million in 2016 and has given away almost $5 million since it began. The next round of scholarships will be awarded in 2018. Applications will be available early in 2018.

“Our Work Ethic scholarships pay or help pay for training for skilled trades programs,” Rowe said. “Anyone can apply. They have to sign a Sweat Pledge, provide a video, complete the application, and provide references.”

He said the goal of his foundation is “to find qualities in individuals that reflect the work ethic we value and reward them.”

For more information about the foundation, its scholarships, and past recipients, visit

The night in numbers:

  • 1,570+ attendees
  • 300+ students/educators
  • 13 exhibitors representing almost as many industries
  • $5,000 in prizes awarded to student attendees
  • $70,000+ raised
  • 10% of net proceeds awarded to mikeroweWORKS Foundation
Learn More. For Rowe’s take on his visit to Iowa, check out his website or his Facebook page.

For information on the apprenticeship programs or scholarships available, visit the following websites. Each of these organizations will receive a portion of the proceeds from the night for distribution through existing scholarship programs.
Home Builders Association of Iowa | Master Builders of Iowa | Plumbing-Heating-Cooling Contractors of Iowa