Must Watch: Mike Rowe's Real Talk on Higher Education and America's 'Dysfunctional Relationship With Work'

Posted: Nov 20, 2018 10:25 AM

Last week, the Independent Women's Forum held their annual gala in Washington, DC.  I've had the pleasure of attending these events in the past, but was out of the country and unable to make it this year -- a small aside to which I'll return shortly.  Among the featured guests at IWF's 2018 soiree were recently-departed US Ambassador to the United Nations and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Fox News host Harris Faulkner, and longtime Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe.  

It's a bit rare to see Rowe not sporting his signature ball cap, let alone wearing a suit, but that's what he wore as he addressed the elite center-right Beltway audience.  But his sartorial choices weren't really important.  What mattered is what he imparted.  Rowe devoted his remarks to addressing America's "dysfunctional relationship" with work, lamenting that our culture and dominant institutions far too often discourage or demean the laudable post-high school pursuit of learning a marketable and in-demand trade or craft -- as opposed to following the stampede down the debt-laden path of four-year college degrees.  I strongly encourage you to watch the entire speech, which begins with a lovely tribute to his grandfather, then circles back to that legacy at the conclusion.  The thrust of Rowe's message begins just past the six-minute mark:

"What we need to do in our country is change the way people think about work. We have to change the perceptions, the misperceptions, the myths, the stereotypes and the stigmas that are affirmatively keeping millions of kids in this generation from pursuing the millions of opportunities currently in the offing...We have to look at our language.  We have to look at our messages...We need to tell better stories of men and women who master a trade, and then go on to succeed. We have to put these people on a poster. We have to celebrate them.  We don't need American idols; we need American icons. Icons of work...We need to stop talking about education in a cookie-cutter fashion that leaves us with no choice but to conclude the best path for the most people is the most expensive path.  Friends, this is nuts...Seventy-five percent of [our] available jobs don't require a four-year degree. They require training."

Watch the entire thing.  Really.  The reason I mentioned my international excursion above is because it was, in some ways, directly relevant to Rowe's point.  I was a guest of the American-Swiss Foundation last week, joining a group of young people from both countries who spent seven days in Switzerland.  It wasn't a vacation; it was a heavily-scheduled educational tour of the Swiss cultural, political and business landscape.  Switzerland is a wildly successful country that punches far above its weight, globally.  One of the features of the thriving Swiss system that we heard about over and over again was their widespread and astoundingly impactful apprenticeship programs.  Roughly 70 percent of Swiss students choose to pursue apprenticeships in their mid-to-late teens; this track is widely encouraged, and not stigmatized at all.  A sizable contingent of the country's top government officials and leaders of industry, including CEO's, were once apprentices.  This education model trains young people to master highly-marketable tangible skills; graduates walk away with deep and practical know-how, a built-in professional network, and little to no student debt. 

Our American delegation was split nearly evenly between conservatives and liberals, and we disagreed passionately on a host of issues and questions.  But one of the clear areas of strong consensus was that pursuing and applying the Swiss apprenticeship model -- which puts the idea Mike Rowe so articulately and passionately advocates into practice -- ought to be a no-brainer in the United States.  We must take affirmative steps to embrace it.  Meanwhile, on more traditional measures of economic strength, I'll leave you with a few statistics that reflect the strength of the booming US economy -- including important progress on wages that has been made over the past decade-and-a-half:

Most studies of incomes have glaring omissions. Some examine only before-tax income; others, after-tax. Many don’t include some government benefits — for example, food stamps, Medicare or Medicaid (health programs for the elderly and the poor). Others exclude employer-paid health insurance, which is a big item. The CBO study covers all of these areas. It confirms that the rich have catapulted ahead of most Americans, including many with six-figure incomes. The richest 1 percent of U.S. households had average pretax incomes of $1.855 million in 2015. The growth has been astonishing. From 1979 to 2015, pretax incomes of the top 1 percent jumped 233 percent. That’s more than a tripling. (All figures are corrected for inflation.)

But it’s not true that no one else had gains. If the bottom 99 percent experienced stagnation, their 2015 incomes would be close to those of 1979, the study’s first year. This is what most people apparently believe. The study found otherwise. The poorest fifth of Americans (a fifth is known as a “quintile”) enjoyed a roughly 80 percent post-tax income increase since 1979. The richest quintile — those just below the top 1 percent — had a similar gain of nearly 80 percent. The middle three quintiles achieved less, about a 50 percent rise in post-tax incomes. These seem small, but over four decades, they’re meaningful. It’s doubtful that most Americans would prefer to revert to the world as it was in 1979 — a world without smartphones, the Internet, most cable television or laparoscopic surgery.

One more stray thought as you let Rowe's message marinate: The Swiss unemployment rate is 2.4 percent.