Dirty Jobs’ Mike Rowe finds passion in everyday tasks.
There’s a question that Mike Rowe gets asked so often that he was sick of it for a while. But then he decided to have a little fun with it. That’s an approach that seems to work for him with just about whatever comes his way.
Rowe is the instantly recognizable and, yes, ruggedly handsome, face of the popular television show Dirty Jobs, which aired on the Discovery channel from 2005 to 2012. In his uniquely offbeat way, he chronicled lots of unpleasant things that, for the most part, you were glad someone else was doing for a living. So for the last 15 years, he has frequently been asked some variation of what was the dirtiest job ever on the show?
The 58-year-old Rowe is a quietly talkative guy who seems informed on just about any topic. He’s certainly not the type to back down from a conversation. He loves to engage and is happy to elaborate, and this patient manner is just one of his many likable qualities. But he admits that particular question used to get under his skin a bit.
“At first it was great, and I was kind of flattered that someone would care enough about what we were doing that they would ask,” he says. “But I grew to sort of hate that question over the years because you hate to give the same answer every time. So I would change it up, and the truth is that after about 300 shows there are probably 30 different jobs that are legitimate answers to that question.”
So, depending on which story he felt like repeating, the “dirtiest job ever” might have involved a vomit-inducing cleanup after a clogged sewer line literally exploded inside a woman’s home, or maybe it dealt with castrating a lamb with one’s teeth. On another day, he might have felt like telling the truly terrifying tale of being lowered 60 feet down a narrow hole to mine for opals in the Australian Outback.
Rowe held down plenty of jobs of his own before the show and many more since. You have seen him in commercials for Ford trucks and Viva paper towels, and you’ve heard his resonant tones narrating shows like The Deadliest Catch, American Chopper, and Shark Week, just to name a few.
But Dirty Jobs is what he’s best known for, and it may be part of his future, too. He and the original production crew filmed four new reunion/retrospective episodes under the name Dirty Jobs: Rowe’d Trip. The new shows aired on Discovery in July, and Rowe says there’s interest from the network for more. He’s game if they are, but only when conditions are safer from the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic. “We’re kind of waiting to see if the universe gives us the all clear,” he says.
He’s a busy man who doesn’t have many days off. He travels a lot, making speeches and appearances to call attention to labor issues. Other projects that keep him busy are a storytelling podcast called That’s The Way I Heard It and a series on Facebook Watch called Returning the Favor, which focuses on everyday people doing extraordinary things (and which recently won him his first Emmy Award). While Dirty Jobs might have made you feel better about your own job, Returning the Favor makes you feel better about your fellow man.
HOW HE GOT HERE
Rowe lives across the bay from San Francisco these days, but he started his life on the other side of the country as one of three sons of two school teachers just outside Baltimore, Maryland. They lived just off the interstate in a farm-like setting that was oddly idyllic. A stream ran nearby, and he had dozens of acres of woods to explore. His mom had told him the highway noise in the distance was the sound of the ocean. “And I believed her until one night a truck hit the guard rail and came crashing into the trees halfway up the hill with its headlights shooting up in the sky.”
He wanted to be a skilled carpenter like his grandpa, who could build a house by hand without any blueprints. When he realized he hadn’t inherited those talents, the older man gently and knowingly suggested that he “find another toolbox.” So he did, eventually. An amazing high school music teacher named Fred King helped by pushing him in an unexpected new direction. “In middle school, I was shy and had a stutter, but my voice changed, so I was this big kid with a low voice and a weird stammer,” Rowe recalls. “In the tenth grade Mr. King taught me how to sing and forced me to audition for a play. I memorized the monologue and, I’ll never forget it, he said, ‘That was pretty good, but let’s try it without the stammer.’”
The teacher’s influence, he says, was “transformational.” It led to Rowe trying out for the Baltimore Opera and also becoming a member of the Screen Actors Guild, which allowed him to go after other artistic pursuits. This led to a high-exposure stint on the QVC shopping network and work in local television in Baltimore. From there he headed west to KPIX-TV in San Francisco. A news segment on some workers who were knee-deep in sewage gave him the idea for the reality show that would become iconic and give him a worldwide identity.
“You don’t know the really big moments that impact your life until you look back,” he says a few decades later. “But it’s clear that there are a lot of things that wouldn’t happen if I didn’t walk into Fred King’s music class.”
Rowe’s approach on Dirty Jobs was to tag along, stay out of the way when he needed to, and provide plenty of comic relief. But he was never afraid to pitch in and get his own hands dirty, too, and that’s one reason viewers kept tuning in. Along the way, especially during the recession back in 2008, he was repeatedly asked to comment on employment issues that were in the news. He got more and more interested in the importance of so-called blue collar jobs in America and grew puzzled as to why our society tends to put more importance on academia rather than skilled trades. He set up a nonprofit, the Mike Rowe WORKS Foundation, to help find and train workers to fill job openings.
“We’re helping to close America’s skills gap,” he says. “It started as a p.r. campaign for those jobs that nobody seems to want, then it became a resource center, and in 2011 and 2012 it became a scholarship fund. We have had 5,000 people apply and be awarded 1,000 scholarships (to trade schools and community colleges) worth more than $5 million.”
There are more opportunities than ever for people not afraid of a hard day’s work. “The skilled labor shortage is real,” he says, “and a lot of companies are struggling to figure out how to close it.”
BRING YOUR PASSION
When talking about jobs, Rowe likes to share his philosophy that “following your passion” might just be the worst career advice ever. He insists that some of the happiest people he’s met were the ones doing some of the nastiest jobs imaginable. There were those guys picking up road kill on a highway who were actually whistling while they worked, for instance. He also cites a successful entrepreneur who built a comfortable life for himself and his family after he realized the need for a company that emptied septic tanks.
“Just because you love something doesn’t mean you don’t suck at it,” he says. “If you’re talking about a hobby and you’re passionate about it, then yes, follow that passion. But I think you’re better off finding an opportunity, whether you love it or not, and finding a way to be passionate about it. There are a lot of jobs out there that could become a dream job.”
When Rowe does find some time to unwind, it’s usually pretty close to his home in Marin County, on the opposite end of the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco. Asked about his personal life, he says simply: “Never married. In a relationship for 25 years with the same girl, and she stays under the radar.”
He doesn’t have any serious or organized fitness regimen, he says, but watches his diet, does some push-ups, and enjoys brisk walks, sometimes in the shade of the towering redwoods near his home. Often he is accompanied by Freddy, a sand-colored part-terrier that he named in honor of his beloved music teacher.
He has traveled so much over the years that he tends to stay close to home in his down time. His idea of a relaxing weekend recently involved floating on an inner tube on a picturesque lake with a cold Dos Equis and his waterproof Kindle loaded up with a good crime thriller novel.
Asked why he thinks he appeals so much to TV viewers, here’s what Rowe had to say: “People over the years have seen me at my worst and humbled in the presence of hundreds of experts. So there’s a baked-in modesty to hosting a show like Dirty Jobs, where you’re forced to humble yourself. And if there’s a joke, the joke’s on me—it’s not on the people we highlight.”
“I love and spend a lot of time in that world,” he continues, “but my own background is that of a failed tradesman. I couldn’t follow in my grandfather’s footsteps, so I had to get a different toolbox, and I had to play the cards that were dealt me. I didn’t take a straight path. I took a very circuitous, winding road.”