Mike Rowe is the host of The Discovery Channel's "Dirty Jobs" show. Depending on your viewing preferences, he may also be best known as the pitchman for the Ford Motor Company. And in his spare time, he operates a company called Mike Rowe Works. He describes it as a small California company that is "trying to close the country's skills gap by changing the way Americans feel about work."
A couple of weeks ago, while most of us political types were preoccupied with conventions (and squeezing in a brief holiday celebrating labor), Rowe wrote a letter to Mitt Romney to address the issue, similar to one he wrote to President Obama when he was first a candidate. Titled "The first four years are the hardest" (and found on MikeRoweWorks.com), he details some of the problems we have in putting many in our country back to work.
Frankly, a lot of the problem is with ourselves, and it is in our heads. Rowe states the problem as "our country has become emotionally disconnected from an essential part of our workforce. We are no longer impressed with cheap electricity, paved roads, and indoor plumbing. We take our infrastructure for granted, and the people who build it."
As such, we've developed a skills gap in our nation, and we can find evidence of it here in Georgia. While we graduate a record number of college graduates (providing them cheap loans to pay for their education but little guidance or assurance that there will be a job for them based on the skills they obtain), we have jobs going unfilled that require technical training but no college degree.
There are currently 12,632 open truck driving positions in Georgia, according to the Governor's office of workforce development. These positions had a 2011 wage of $16.91 per hour. The training required is only a nine-week program. Nine weeks of training could wipe out the need for 99 weeks of unemployment benefits.
Similarly, there are 2,966 open positions under the loose description of mechanics, installers, and repairers of systems such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning. These require more training and often an apprenticeship program, but the starting wage is an average of $25.78 per hour. There are many unemployed and underemployed college graduates who would have been better served with shorter (and paid) apprenticeships for technical training than to rack up student debt for skills that do not match today's workforce.
Georgia has used Rowe to launch its technical recruitment campaign, but there remains a stigma for too many to consider what Rowe has branded as "dirty jobs." What was once considered a badge of honor to have completed an "honest day's work" now appears to some as to have settled for less. Even though in many instances, experienced workers in technical fields make more today than their average college graduate counterparts.
Rowe calls it this way: "We need people who see opportunity where opportunity exists. We need enthusiasm for careers that have been overlooked and underappreciated by society at large. We need to have a really big national conversation about what we value in the workforce "
And he is correct. The first step to solving a problem is to recognize that we have a problem. And we do. We do not place the social value on quality technical jobs that matches their monetary value.
The job market and related wages tells us that these jobs are needed, and that there is value in them. It is time we have this conversation with ourselves, young and old. The young need to understand that paths of opportunity do not exclusively run through universities. Those of us who are older need to encourage those making training and career choices to choose what best suits them, rather than force conformity of expectation that success in life can only be attained through a formal degree program.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.