Mike Rowe on How Trade Workers Can Solve the U.S. Labor Shortage

Mike Rowe, CEO of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and TV show host, explains how skilled trade employees are the key to fixing the post-pandemic workforce shortage.


Air Date: October 26, 2021

Moderator: Carolyn Cawley, President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation

Featured Guests: Mike Rowe, CEO, mikeroweWORKS Foundation

The COVID-19 pandemic has radically reshaped the U.S. workforce, leading to a number of unprecedented challenges for business leaders and employers. Among these challenges is the ongoing and widespread skilled labor shortage, which has tasked leadership across all industries with rethinking the ways they recruit and retain employees.

As part of the recent Talent Forward virtual event, Mike Rowe, founder and CEO of the mikeroweWORKS Foundation and popular TV show host, shared insights on the value of skilled labor and how trade workers can play a critical role in filling the skills gap in the United States.

Stereotypes About Skilled Trade Employees Are Harming the U.S. Workforce

Rowe believes that harmful stereotypes about skilled trade employees have played a key role in the creation of the national labor shortage.

“It is myths and misperceptions and stigmas and stereotypes that affirmatively conspire to keep millions of people from giving these opportunities an honest look,” said Rowe. “So many of those open positions don't require the very credentialing that we're currently obsessed with,” he added, citing the tendency to encourage all young Americans to pursue four-year degrees.

Rowe lamented how the stigmas surrounding trade occupations have obscured the many benefits of skilled labor. “What I think the country really needs to see,” continued Rowe, “is a steady diet of people who have prospered as a result of mastering a skill that's in demand.”

Employees Need Strong a Work Ethic To Meet Post-Pandemic Workforce Demands

For Rowe, a decline in the American values of work ethic and personal responsibility has contributed to the devaluation of skilled labor. He sees the revival of these values as a critical first step in closing the skills gap and reviving the economy.

“How those concepts became the enemy fascinates me, because they have become the enemy today,” said Rowe. “You can look in so many different places and you can find people affirmatively opposed to things like personal responsibility and work ethic. I felt like somebody needed to make a case for those old bromides and platitudes because they matter.”

The value of a strong work ethic lies at the heart of Rowe’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS.

“We wanted to do something to identify and celebrate people who were really affirmatively interested in showing up early, staying late, and mastering a skill that's in demand,” Rowe explained.

Redefining Essential Employees Will Help Americans Fill Skills Gap

The notion of “essential” workers became part of a shared vocabulary during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, but to Rowe, this language represents a fundamental disconnect in the way Americans think about labor.

“It's not just about the skill. It's not just about the employee or the employer. It's about all of us,” Rowe said.

“The skills gap,” he added, “is not just about...finding jobs for people and people for jobs. It's reminding the other 300 million people in this country [of] the degree to which they're relying on the [trade workers] we're talking about.”

The first step to filling the skills gap, according to Rowe, is understanding that conversations about the value of skilled labor need to happen on a macro level across the country.

“That word is dangerous,” said Rowe, referring to the idea of essential workers. “We're all essential to somebody...and there are no jobs that I've ever seen anywhere that aren't essential.”