Shattering Misperceptions

By Daniel Lai

Mike Rowe is on a one-man mission to bring national attention to the importance of skilled trades training across the country. As the former host of Discovery Channel’s hit show “Dirty Jobs,” Rowe spent countless hours traveling to all 50 U.S. states and working more than 300 different jobs, transforming cable television into a landscape of swamps, sewers, ice roads and coal mines. Based on these experiences, Rowe launched the mikeroweWORKS Foundation, which awards scholarships to students pursuing a career in the skilled trades; was featured on a TED Talk; testified before both the U.S. House and Senate; and eagerly speaks to just about anyone who will listen.

Taking his love of skilled trades even further, Rowe launched a new series titled “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” on CNN in 2014, joining innovators, do-gooders and entrepreneurs in their respective undertakings. Rowe recently sat down with the Detroiter to discuss the importance of shattering misperceptions of skilled trades and blue collar jobs in Michigan and the United States.

Mike Rowe Detroiter photo

Photo courtesy of Celebrity Services

What sparked your interest as an advocate for the skilled trades?

That’s a long story. I grew up next to my granddad on a little farm in Baltimore, and he was a master electrician, plumber, steamfitter, welder and mechanic — the kind of guy who can build a house without a blueprint. I was always in awe of that talent, but sadly that gene is recessive because I didn’t inherit it at all and ended up in the entertainment industry. By the time “Dirty Jobs” came along, I was in my early 40s and he was fading and I wanted to do a show that looked like work because, at that point he had never seen me do anything on television that could be confused for actual labor. There weren’t many shows on TV either that paid an honest tribute to the jobs my grandfather grew up doing. He only had an eighth grade education, but he was heroic and in the back of my mind I wanted to do a show that tapped into that.

While filming an episode of “Dirty Jobs,” you worked as a bridge maintainer on the Mackinac Bridge. What stood out for you on that job?

So many things. That was a pivotal job. Optically it just looked like something most people have never seen. We did a pretty good job of shooting the episode and capturing the perspective of what those guys do day in and day out. It was also really significant to me because it was the first time a municipality never said “no.” We’re so used to people saying “I’m sorry we can’t let you do that.” As a joke, I was asking all sorts of things that I was sure they would say no to, like would it be OK to go down inside the towers under the water to paint one of those tiny honeycomb coffins and they said “yeah, we’ll let you do that.” At the end of the day, I asked, “What are the odds you will let me walk across that girder and up the suspension cable?” and they said, “Sure. You want to do that?” It was a perfect storm of good things. It was a very appreciative state and a bunch of passionate guys who were eager to show the world what they do to maintain the bridge.

Mike Rowe addresses America's worsening skills gap and the concerns that follow closely behind in "Profoundly Disconnected."

Mike Rowe addresses America’s worsening skills gap and the concerns that follow closely behind in “Profoundly Disconnected.”

The second season of “Somebody’s Gotta Do It” recently premiered on CNN. What sparked your idea for the show? Where do you find inspiration and how do you identify the “innovators, do-gooders, and entrepreneurs” you want to feature?

Ninety percent comes off my Facebook page. “Dirty Jobs” was programmed almost entirely by viewers and so is “Somebody’s Gotta Do It.” It started not just as a tribute to the work in skilled trades, but kind of an homage to people who were passionate about what they do and a little afflicted by their desire to do what they do. When we finished “Dirty Jobs,” I wanted to circle back to my original idea of a broader show about vocation, avocation and passion.

How can we as a nation make technical and manufacturing career pathways more attractive for parents and school counselors?

The short answer is PR. It’s very noisy out there. Everyone has an agenda and crowding into the space to have this conversation about the definition of a good job in 2015. That’s essentially what’s for sale. We get to decide what a good job is and what’s aspirational. The things we do as parents and educators and the messages we send via pop culture are immensely impactful to a kid who is trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his or her life.

Part of the reason so many opportunities in the technical trades and skilled labor feel like a vocational consolation prize is precisely because that’s how we’ve couched them. It’s a very difficult thing to do, but your perception of a plumber, in all likelihood involves a 300-pound guy with a giant butt crack because we’ve seen that over and over again. We’ve heard the best path for most people is a four-year degree. These things become platitudes and before long it’s inculcated in our minds that there is a path to success and this is what it looks like. We have to be mindful that these stereotypes and stigmas actually exist, and rather than pretend they don’t, it’s useful to talk about them head-on.

What needs to be done to reverse misperceptions of skilled trades and blue collar jobs in Michigan and the United States?

There’s this constant balance that goes on between the definition of a good job and our understanding of a truly valuable education. Language matters a lot. We don’t really talk about education today. We talk about higher education and we talk about alternative education. That really informs the conversation because you set the table in a very specific way. The alternatives to higher education feel subordinate simply because the language we’re using to describe them implies a certain primacy to one route.

“There’s no such thing as a mechanic today. You open the hood of your car and you don’t need a mechanic. You need a rocket scientist or a software specialist. We’ve advanced so quickly that we’ve pulled skilled trades into a much more sophisticated career path and the language and perceptions simply have not had time to catch up.”

It goes back to challenging outdated stereotypes. There’s no such thing as a mechanic today. You open the hood of your car and you don’t need a mechanic. You need a rocket scientist or a software specialist. We’ve advanced so quickly that we’ve pulled skilled trades into a much more sophisticated career path and the language and perceptions simply have not had time to catch up. In Michigan there’s something like 100,000 jobs on the books available and maybe 15 to 20 percent require a four-year degree. The others require very specific training and a willingness to roll your sleeves up and work.

The mikeroweWorks Foundation aims to award scholarships to men and women who have demonstrated an interest in and an aptitude for mastering a specific trade. Does any particular success story stand out for you about someone who received help from the Foundation?

Hundreds. We’ve done a little over $3 million in work ethic scholarships. I’ve got more notes, videos and feedback from people than I know what to do with, people who took the time to learn a skill. I got a letter from a kid in Saudi Arabia who ended up going to SkillsUSA a few years ago who is now making $140,000 a year welding. He was previously living in a trailer somewhere in Kentucky taking care of his sister.

There’s a 26-year-old kid in North Dakota who started working on heavy equipment and within six months he’s making $130,000 a year. He quits his job because he can do better freelancing on the high plains working on heavy equipment. The story is incredible because he’s married, second kid on the way, zero debt and just bought a house in cash. He learned a skilled trade, went to the place where the opportunities are greatest, and applied his skill. Guys like that should be on a poster, whether it’s about the auto industry or the construction industry.

Companies that are on the front line of recruiting skilled labor, in my humble opinion, need to make a more persuasive case for the opportunities that actually exist.

Daniel Lai is a communications specialist and copywriter at the Detroit Regional Chamber. 

Michigan’s Freshman Congressionals: Let’s Work, Learn Together

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Some of the newest members of Michigan’s Congressional delegation acknowledged that while they may not always be able to speak in unanimous agreement, they have made a commitment to buck partisan fighting and work and learn together.

Building off the Conference pillar of “cohesion,” Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn), Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence (D-Southfield) and Congressman Dave Trott (R-Birmingham) discussed building a more a collaborative environment in Washington, and how Michigan’s delegation can take the lead.

Addressing issues ranging from the Highway Trust Fund, Trade Promotion Authority and comprehensive immigration reform, the panel recognized that while disagreements exist between them, choosing cooperation over conflict would be critical to being effective legislators and overcoming the polarization in the nation’s capitol. Both Trott and Lawrence expressed that their respective backgrounds as a businessman and mayor taught them that progress is not achieved without bringing all parties to the table.

An impassioned moment came on stage from Dingell, who urged attendees to contact their state legislators and demand an immediate, sustainable fix for Michigan’s roads and infrastructure. The Chamber has been a staunch advocate for increased road funding, making it a key priority in the 2015 Conference “To-Do” list.

City and State Leaders Commit to Collaboration

A stronger comeback for Michigan and Detroit means partnering and acting together. Key leaders of the state Legislature, Detroit City Council and Mayor’s Office took the stage at the Chamber’s annual Political Action Committee (PAC) reception to discuss the ways they can align on critical issues affecting both the city and state. Proceeds from this event went to the Chamber’s PAC, which supports pro-growth candidates from both parties who are committed building a more prosperous Michigan.

The relationship between Michigan and its largest city has seen an increased level of collaboration recently, with the historic Grand Bargain being the most notable. But looking beyond this, there are number of pieces of legislation in front of the Legislature that will require increased communication and partnership between Lansing and Detroit to keep the city and state’s momentum.

Moderator and CEO of Miller Canfield Mike McGee pressed the panel, which included House Speaker Rep. Kevin Cotter, Chief Government Affairs Officer for the City of Detroit Lisa Howze, Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones and Senate Majority Leader Sen. Arlan Meekhoff, about how they would work together on reforming Detroit’s educational system, reducing auto insurance rates in the city and continuing strong economic development throughout the state.

Relationship building remained a constant across all of the issues. While sizeable disagreements were acknowledged, all of the panelists expressed their commitment to collaborating on the issues that matter most to Detroit and Michigan’s future growth.

Long-Term Solution for Michigan’s Transportation Infrastructure Requires Funding Compromise, Increased Revenue, Immediate Action

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Investing in transportation infrastructure is crucial to the state’s comeback and economic development strategy. How that happens will require compromise and new tax revenue, as discussed in a panel on how to fix Michigan’s roads.

In a discussion moderated by Christy McDonald, “MiWeek” anchor for Detroit Public Television, panelists called for less arguing and more action in Lansing. Citing a Michigan Department of Transportation Task Force report, S. Evan Weiner, executive vice president and chief operating officer of Edw. C. Levy Co., said that in 2008 the magic number to properly fix Michigan’s roads would’ve cost $1.2 billion. Now, Weiner says, that number has increased to $1.5 billion and is growing daily — adversely impacting the state’s ability to attract jobs, talent and international business investment.

“We need a legislative solution and we need it now,” he said.

Doug Rothwell, president and CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, said the state’s roads are a significant deterrent to economic development in opening remarks. The solution, he said has to be big enough to solve the problem, require warranties, use a dedicated and sustainable revenue source from users of the system, and should not adversely impact other areas that help create jobs.

Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, agreed with the vision and scope of the problems, but suggested “well-reasoned cuts” to state programs. However, that solution was not embraced by the other panelists.

“To me that sounds like robbing Peter to pay Paul” said Gregory Ioanidis, vice president of business unit finance and rates for ITC Holdings Corp.

Westland Mayor William Wild called for a cohesive road funding plan that includes input from local mayors across the state.

“As we work toward a solution, I would encourage state leaders to work with mayors. We’re the closest to the people and we hear their opinions on road funding solutions. Our perspective at the table is much more valuable than polling and focus groups.”

Detroit Leaders: City’s Comeback Requires Conscious Inclusion, Neighborhood Revitalization

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Michigan and Detroit have a responsibility to expand participation and grow opportunity for people of all backgrounds in order to move the state forward. That was the key message a panel of civic, government and business leaders, moderated by Stephen Henderson, editorial page editor of the Detroit Free Press, laid out in the session titled “Race, Opportunity and the Art of Cohesion” on Friday.

La June Montgomery Tabron, president and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, said there is a business case for bridging the gap of racial equality in the state. Tabron highlighted that reducing the income gap would result in an additional $30 billion in gross domestic product for Michigan and an additional $900 million in tax revenue for the city of Detroit.

Tabron and Frank Venegas Jr., chairman and CEO of the Ideal Group Inc. and Detroit Regional Chamber Board member, called for more area businesses in the Detroit region to make a conscious effort to hire teens and adults in poorer neighborhoods.

“Disengaged youth are going to become a rising problem here and across the nation if we don’t do anything,” Tabron said.

Venegas challenged business leaders to commit to hiring one to five minorities through jobs or internships in the next year.

One important factor in reducing societal tensions requires a compassionate civic-minded police department, according to U. Renee Hall, deputy police chief for the city of Detroit.

Hall said in some of the city’s more impoverished neighborhoods, the department works with gang members and others through community outreach programs that teach employment and quality of life skills. She also said it is important for the department to remain transparent and reflect the racial makeup of the city.

Calling for action off the island, Detroit City Councilman Andre Spivey said infusing capital into businesses outside of Detroit’s downtown and midtown that employ minorities is also key to ensuring the success of the city as a whole.

“Moving Detroit forward is about simple economics,” he said. “We are still a very polarized city and region. We have to do more than talk about it when we leave this Conference.”

Detroit Regional Chamber Releases 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List and Announces 2016 Conference Dates

MACKINAC ISLAND, May 29, 2015 – Today, the Detroit Regional Chamber unveiled its 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List following three days of discussions featuring top state, regional and national thought leaders. Governor Rick Snyder, Conference Chair Mark Davidoff, Michigan Managing Partner of Deloitte LLP, and Chamber President and CEO Sandy K. Baruah announced the list of four items at the conclusion of the annual Conference.

“The Mackinac Policy Conference is not a policy-making body – that job falls to our elected officials. The Conference role is to highlight the critical issues facing Michigan. I am proud that for the last five years we have held ourselves accountable for taking specific actions resulting from the Conference discussions,” Baruah said.

The 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference To-Do List is:

  1. Promote ethos of ‘doing well by doing good’ by featuring one civic organization at each Mackinac Policy Conference that is helping to make Michigan a better place to live and work.
  2. Promote financial literacy in targeted communities through partnerships with financial services firms and the foundation and non-profit community.
  3. Support the revitalization of Detroit’s neighborhoods and narrowing of the opportunity gap through the promotion of entrepreneurship and gain a better understanding of micro-lending programs.
  4. Aggressively work toward the fix to Michigan’s critical transportation infrastructure that effectively solves the problem by dedicating sufficient long-term funding for this issue while keeping intact other critical funding essential to moving Michigan forward.

The 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference will be held Tuesday, May 31 through Friday, June 3.

Detroit Regional Chamber 2015 Mackinac Policy Conference
The Mackinac Policy Conference – the Detroit Regional Chamber’s annual event – brings together business and government to re-energize Michigan. Since 1981, the Conference has provided access to Michigan’s top business professionals, legislative leaders, corporate CEOs, entrepreneurs and veteran regional champions. Approximately 1,600 attendees attended the 2015 Conference, held from May 26 – May 29 at the historic Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island.

About the Detroit Regional Chamber
Serving the business community for more than 100 years, the Detroit Regional Chamber is one of the oldest, largest and most respected chambers of commerce in the country. The Chamber’s mission of powering the economy for Southeast Michigan is carried out through economic development, education reform, regional collaboration and providing valuable benefits to members. For more information, please visit

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Harold Ford Jr., Dan Senor Debate Potential Candidates Heading Into Primary Election

First-rate political analysis took center stage as former Representative Harold Ford Jr. of MSNBC and Republican foreign affairs expert Dan Senor discussed electoral politics in advance of a primary season that may include radically different races for each party.

In the session moderated by The Detroit News’ Editorial Page Editor Nolan Finley, Ford and Senor agreed that Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and John Kasich stood best equipped to emerge from the Republican primary. As a Clinton supporter, Ford said he was most worried about Bush, calling him a very “serious candidate.”

Ford also acknowledged that history often does not favor a political party winning three presidential elections in a row, but stated that if Clinton can distinguish a complementary, yet different vision for the country from the Obama administration, she would win.

Senor doubted her ability to truly be a candidate of change, and argued that Clinton’s lack of an equally credibly primary challenger would actually do more harm to her campaign. He conceded that with a crowded field of candidates, the nominee would be shaped, molded and most importantly, prepared for the general election.

Ford Motor Co. Course for Automotive Innovation Stems from Company’s Iconic Past

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Ethics and innovation are important factors that affect a company’s reputation and success, according to Bill Ford, executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. Ford is at the forefront of intelligent mobility technology, leveraging its past to build its future. During a one-on-one conversation with Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah, Ford said he takes pride in leading a company where “making lives better” drives the automaker’s overarching ethos — a fit with the Conference’s pillar of cohesion.

Responding to a question on how Ford has been able to translate the values of his great-grandfather to keep the automaker competitive in the 21st century, Ford said it comes down to treating employees with respect, describing the company as “a big family.”

Ford Motor Co,’s ability to embrace the past while looking to the future is unrivaled, a lesson that others can learn from the automaker.

“You can’t create the future if you don’t know who you are,” Ford said. “I’ve seen a lot of these younger companies don’t have a culture and the second they hear of the next best thing, people pack up and go. A company needs stability and a reason to work beyond receiving a paycheck.”

Translating those lessons for Michigan’s success, Ford said Michiganders should remember the state’s core values of hard work and manufacturing talent.

In discussing the opportunities and challenges for Michigan as a leader in next-generation mobility, Ford said it is important to understand the needs of transportation customers living in major metropolitan areas versus suburban communities.

“There is no one silver bullet but automakers can’t shy away from the increased demand for next-generation mobility,” he said. “All forms of transportation will have to be linked together on a network and talking to each other. It’s the ultimate opportunity to provide something that customers want and need.”

The response sparked a question from Baruah on Detroit’s talent race with Silicon Valley.

“Are we on a race? The answer is No,” Ford said. “Would I like to get more startup companies here, absolutely, but we’re off to a good start. Detroit and Michigan is the place where activity is happening.”

Eugene Robinson, Kellogg Address the Business Case for Racial Equity

Engaged conversations about race and culture among business, philanthropic, and education leaders can positively impact the ways race, health, education and culture intersect and lead to solutions driven by intentional and purposeful investment. There is also a tangible business case that racial equity in Michigan could make a significant impact on the economy, according to a report released by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and Altarum Institute.

During the Kellogg Foundation hosted lunch session about race, health, education and culture with Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Eugene Robinson, audience members were challenged to have in-depth conversations about issues of equality to foster an environment of progress. Robinson, of The Washington Post, spoke to the audience about focusing on early education as a means to strengthen the workforce of the future.

Robinson cited that Michigan has been a leader in early childhood education with innovative programming, but said that it is only the beginning of making a change in cultural perceptions. The key, he said, is a matter of remaining determined to do the right things for the future of the state.

Following the keynote, Robinson and Michigan Radio’s Jennifer White discussed the ways that investing in human capital will secure an engaged workforce in the future. Robinson has been encouraged by the work being done in Michigan saying that the opportunities are greater than the obstacles, and that going forward, the obstacles must be taken as they come. He expressed optimism that the conversations and connections created at the Conference about education and race will continue in Detroit and throughout the state.

As Detroit Moves Forward, Business Must be Intentional About Inclusion, Diversity and Opportunity

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Creating an inclusive city and ensuring a united Detroit emerges in the post-bankruptcy era will take collaboration from a wide variety of community, business, political and philanthropic groups working together. That concept and the theme of taking intentional action in regard to inclusion, diversity and opportunity shaped the discussion at an interactive town hall discussion where Conference attendees shared impassioned views on a critical issue facing the city.

Matt Elliott, Michigan market president for Bank of America, which sponsored the session, shared how important neighborhoods are to the growth happening in the city. Bank of America is working with the Detroit Land Bank Authority and other organizations to offer incentives to people rehabilitating and acquiring homes in the neighborhoods through the Building Detroit program.

The conversation, led by Nolan Finley, editorial page editor of The Detroit News, and Devin Scillian, anchor of WDIV-TV 4, followed with input from leaders in the Detroit business community, picking up the dialogue from the 2015 Detroit Policy Conference panel on “Uniting Two Detroits.”

“It’s about having hard conversations about hard issues,” 2015 Conference Chair Mark Davidoff said, sharing how Deloitte is working to solve issues of diversity and inclusion working with Cornerstone Schools in Detroit, with a five-year pilot program that will provide students enhanced training in math, accounting, problem-solving, management and business ethics.

Many attendees advocated for the conversations to continue off the island, but said it is up to the leadership of Detroit to be diligent in making inclusion a priority.

“Our urban areas need to be areas of opportunity not just for some, but for everyone,” Detroit Regional Chamber President Sandy Baruah said.

“There are segments of the population where the American Dream is a foreign concept.”

Thriving urban growth is a global trend, and Detroit needs to be prepared to be a part of that paradigm shift with an intentional look at the way that diversity contributes to those opportunities, Baruah said.

Dennis Archer Jr., president and CEO of Ignition Media Group, and 2016 Mackinac Policy Conference Chair, reiterated his comments made at the Detroit Policy Conference that minorities need to be encouraged to take risks. It is important to embolden a cultural shift that inspires entrepreneurship because diverse ownership will encourage diverse clientele, he said.

The conversation stimulated audience members to contribute to a tough subject that can serve as the basis for a cohesive strategy for inclusion and opportunity in Detroit.