This letter is in respose to Mike Rowe’s response to Facebook comments on his Wal-Mart commercial voiceover that aired during the 2014 Winter Olympics in February. Click here for Mike’s original post and this letter will make much more sense. 

Dear Mr. Rowe,
[oh, who am I kidding?]

Hey Mike,

First, I must assure you that I will only write this 1 letter, not 5,048. I certify I am not part of any quasi-workers-rights organization, nor will I flood your inbox (or Mary’s) with unnecessary hate mail, death threats or form letters urging you to sit down with “real” Walmart employees and listen to their plight. Also, I do not own any sort of robotic telemarketing equipment that will jam up your voice mail.

I’m just me, a business professor at a state university with a Ph.D. in the areas of human resource development and ethics that was nested within a department at the University of Minnesota called Work and Human Resource Education. Along the way I was tortured with had the pleasure of reading research on the history of vocational education, self-directed learning, adult education, and a book entitled Shop Class as Soulcraft : An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford that I, admittedly, skimmed and did not read.  Then again, that was before I was a fake biker and it has a motorcycle on the front, so perhaps I should consider another go. Crawford, both a philosopher and a mechanic, extolled the virtues of working with one’s hands in addition to one’s head. That sounds like you, Michael.

I’m also the mom to four kids, one of whom is a 19-year old male who is just not liberal arts material, gotta say. He doesn’t know this yet, but if the midterm grades are any indication, he’ll know it soon. I’ve realized the value and need for more vocational education programs, if only in my own home.

My last point to prove I’m not a crazy person begins and ends with a Mike Rowe quote: “So, it’s really a mechanical butt hole, then.” Poo pot episode. Can’t. Get. Enough. Of. That.

[Excuse me while I find that clip online and watch it a dozen times.]

Ok, I’m back.

I was recently at the Academy of Human Resource Development conference in Houston, TX and you came to mind.

Seriously. I’m not even kidding.

I attended a presentation by Dr. Richard Torraco and Minerva Tuliao from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Together they presented a paper entitled The Changing Job Market and Workforce Development: Tracking a Rapidly Moving Target. They introduced us to the term technological unemployment (Brynjolfsson & McAfee, 2011) that can be seen by the replacement of manual jobs by technological improvements: bank tellers by ATM’s, transcriptionists by automated dictation systems, toll booth operators by pre-paid scanning systems, travel agents by online travel sites. 

Yep, made sense. I mean, I like my banker but the ATM is a godsend. 

Torraco and Tuliao stated that both jobs and wages are increasing in highly educated professional, technical and managerial positions, while earnings remain steady in occupations that are require little formal education such as food service, personal care and security services. What’s more, job opportunities have risen since the 1980’s while the wages have stayed the same (Autor, 2010). 

Basically we’re hollowing out opportunities for mid-skilled jobs to exist. 

So, this is happening, then…

Further, Torraco and Tuliao stated that maintaining job quality was becoming more difficult. Kalleberg (2000) studied “bad jobs” and found three characteristics: low pay, diminishing health insurance and no pensions. Plus, jobs that fall into one of these three categories tends to be in the others as well. So, workers in part-time and temporary positions will likely experience both low pay and diminishing health insurance as well as no retirement contributions. 
So, it’s a perfect storm, this “bad job” trifecta. 
Can bad jobs also be dirty jobs? Sure. 
Can dirty jobs be good jobs? Absolutely. 
So, Mike, here’s why I’m sending you this letter. I wanted to openly support your assertion of a “skills gap.” I could produce a dozen articles and books from the previously mentioned plethora of research that revealed a skills gap, called for the need to support vocational education, and produced studies that showed the impact of a shift from blue-collar to white-collar jobs. I completely agree with you on your website that a four-year degree is not the only path to success and that working smart and hard is necessary. 
I see this generation of future employees in my office everyday, working toward their four-year business degrees. Some will make it, others not. Here’s what I see in the former and the latter. Those who are going to make it have grit, resilience and determination. They are flexible, semi-driven and take responsibility for shortcomings. Those who will not ultimately finish their degree are usually unmotivated, unfocused and uninspired. 
Why are they so? Honestly, two reasons: (1) my parents are making me go to school and/or (2) I don’t know what I want to do, so I’m doing this. When I mention a completely feasible alternative that involves a skilled trade, I often hear that their parents would be disappointed in anything less than a 4-year degree or that they didn’t want to work that hard. I see this as a twofold compliment. One, they recognize that skilled technical professionals indeed work very hard. Two, they are just not up for the challenge. Perhaps this is a good thing then, going into “management”, so they don’t have to work as hard. This, from a business management professor for over 12 years.  [Note to my university: I love my job. Please do not fire me. Thanks.]
I recently suggested to a friend who is getting back into the full-time workforce with a communication degree that one of three programs are our local technical college would be a good path for short-term retraining and quick job turnaround. The programs I suggested were radiography, welding and anything with CAD. She was like, um, no thanks. Honestly, if I were in the same situation, I’d learn a technical trade in a heartbeat. But now I have this Ph.D. and, well, here we are. [Note to my university: See note in preceding paragraph.]
Let me close with this. Anyone who started as an opera singer and managed to catapult himself into Jolie-Pitt-esque fame as that dude who did those dirty jobs and is now highlighting the need for an appreciation of and support for technical trades  – well, you’ve got my respect, sir. 
And, not just because I can’t stop saying the phrase mechanical butt hole without a satisfied grin. 
All the best,

Stay loud and dirty, my friend.
Dr. Jana Craft
Winona, MN
p.s. – I know the difference between being a “spokesperson” for Wal-Mart and doing a voice over, as should most people. If the American public really had an issue with Wal-Mart we’d all stop shopping there and, in turn, Mary would be spared from her mail hangover (not to be confused with a male hangover.) Kudos to Mary.  

Autor, D. H. (2010). The polarization of job opportunities in the U.S. labor market: Implications for employment and earnings. Washington, DC: Center for American Progress. 

Brynjolfsson, E. & McAfee, A. (2011). Race against the machine. Lexington, MA: Digital Frontier Press. 

Kalleberg, A. L. (2000). Bad jobs in America: Standard and nonstandard employment relations and job quality in the United States. American Sociological Review, 65 (2), 256-2278 

Torraco, R. & Tuliao, M. (2014). The Changing Job Market and Workforce Development: Tracking a Rapidly Moving Target. Academy of Human Resource Conference, Houston, TX.