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'Dirty Jobs' star Mike Rowe offers up laughs, serious support for skilled trades at 'Voices of Vision'

Rowe urges young people to build their own "toolbox," where their skills and passion intersect to help them find fulfilling, successful careers.

Mike Rowe sits in an armchair and gestures widely while a red-headed woman laughs in the background.
Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame speaks from the stage with Chamber President Shannon Full and WDAY's Dana Mogck at the Chamber’s annual "Voices of Vision" event at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum
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FARGO — Mike Rowe grew up wanting to be a tradesman like his father and grandfather.

However, he jokes that he learned early on that, as far as he was concerned, “the handy gene is what you call recessive.”

Rowe, this year’s guest at the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s “Voices of Vision” event, told 2,000 attendees at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex that his father passed on some valuable advice about finding your own way in life.

After the young Rowe had some cement work go awry, his father told him: “If you want to be a tradesman, you can be a tradesman. Just get a different toolbox.”

That advice, urging Rowe to learn where his skills and passions intersected, led him on “a very, very crooked road,” which included attending a junior college, then a state university, where he tried acting, singing, writing and journalism — and learned he liked it, he told the audience Thursday, April 21.

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He became an opera singer in Baltimore, then spent three years hawking products overnight on the QVC cable network.

He was 42 when he broke into TV’s big time with the popular show “Dirty Jobs.”

Over the show’s run, he worked about 350 “dirty jobs,” most of them suggested by fans.

“It is truly the simplest show in the history of television,” Rowe said.

As part of the event’s sit-down conversation, Chamber President and CEO Shannon Full and WDAY news anchor and producer Dana Mogck asked Rowe about his “dirtiest job.”

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Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame speaks from the stage with Chamber President Shannon Full and WDAY's Dana Mogck at the Chamber’s annual "Voices of Vision" event at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

“There’s 30 things that are equally horrific,” Rowe said, often involving artificially inseminating animals.

“We violated every barnyard animal,” Rowe said, which also included inducing bulls to give up semen. It was strange, “but it rated through the roof.”

A segment where he helped repair a lift pump at a wastewater treatment plant in the San Francisco area stands out, he said.

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In Tyvek suits, they went into the waste tank, “dog paddled” to the pump, climbed on top, and attached a cable to the pump to lift it up.

The sound of the lift pump being pulled from the sewage “will haunt your dreams,” Rowe said.

Rowe brought his show to Moorhead in 2011, when he visited the water treatment plant and helped perform maintenance on the planet's water softening basin. He also made an episode with West Fargo-based Great Plains Towers in 2012 to help build a two-way radio near Dickinson.

Rowe is an evangelist for the skilled trades, which he says provide good-paying jobs.

In 2008, he started the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which provides scholarships to students interested in pursuing careers in the trades.

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Mike Rowe of "Dirty Jobs" fame, spoke to the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce’s annual Voices of Vision event at the Sanford Health Athletic Complex on Thursday, April 21, 2022.
David Samson / The Forum

“There are no specific paths. There are many paths,” to success, Rowe said

He doesn’t knock university education — after all, it was a liberal arts degree that helped him find his path — but he said there are plenty of jobs for people willing to “show up early and stay late,” and they’re not getting filled.

Today, there are more than 11 million open jobs, many of them needing people skilled in the trades. Meanwhile, students graduating from four-year institutions have racked up nearly $1.7 trillion in student loan debt, he said.

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Rowe said his higher education odyssey cost him about $9,400. Today, the same coursework would cost $98,000.

The trades have gotten short shrift, he said.

“We have a workforce that’s really out of balance,” Rowe said. “Why is the skills gap a thing? … It’s not a mystery. It’s just a reflection of what we value.”

Too often, he says, young people are pushed into something that might not give them a good living.

“You’re 17 years old. You don’t know your ass from a hot rock!” Rowe said to howls of approval. “The choices (between college and the trades) are equal. You just have to find your toolboxes.”

To help young people reach their career goals in the trades, Rowe’s foundation has given out about $6 million in scholarships to 1,200 young people, he said.

Rowe also regaled the audience with his experiences during his visit to Fargo, including a late night/early morning at downtown Fargo watering hole Rooter’s — where he took a turn at karaoke singing the folk song “Sixteen Tons.”

He said he has a soft spot for this region’s farmers and other hard-working people.

“This is a place of character, with characters,” he said.

Rowe currently hosts the Discovery+ history series “Six Degrees With Mike Rowe," and the podcast “The Way I Heard It,” telling “short stories you don’t know about people you do know” and sharing conversations with interesting people from his own life.

Rowe was the 12th speaker in the “Voices of Vision” series.

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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