My Unusual Solution to Our Trillion Dollar Student Debt Problem

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

Back in 2008, one of the big shots at Discovery asked me if I would care to attend a three-day conference in Monterey, Calif. called the "Entertainment Gathering." I said no thanks. "Conferences" give me the creeps, and "gatherings" sound like the province of wiccans and hippies, neither of whom have expressed much enthusiasm for Dirty Jobs. However, my reticence was met with a firm assurance that The Entertainment Gathering was an offshoot of the "wildly successful" TED Conferences, another well-known speaker series that I had never heard of. It was further explained that Discovery Channel -- a proud sponsor of the event and my employer at the time -- would be most grateful if I agreed to show up and "say a few words" to a unique crowd of "truth-seekers."

Being the loyal vessel and team player that I am, I attended this event, and spoke for exactly 20 minutes, as instructed. I told a few stories, made a few impromptu observations on the changing face of the modern day proletariat, and went home. I didn't give TED a second thought until a few months later, when my mother called to tell me how proud she was to hear me discuss the finer points of oral lamb castration. Apparently, my comments at TED now resided in a vast repository of online videos, assembled presumably for people who wish to broaden their horizons without actually leaving the house.

I was kind of shocked. I had no complaint about being recorded, and no doubt that I signed a release of some kind. But if I had known that my remarks that day would eventually be viewed by several million souls searching for online enlightenment (including my mother), I might have chosen a metaphor that didn't involve my teeth on the genitals of another species. And had I known that previous speakers included astronauts and past presidents and curers of deadly diseases, I might have actually organized my thoughts a bit more and drunk a little less wine before taking the stage.

I realize all that sounds like an excuse, but I'm not complaining. My appearance at TED helped solidify an idea that had started to take shape a year earlier, and the response to that appearance helped convince me that my idea had merit. The idea was a PR Campaign for skilled labor and alternative education called mikeroweWORKS.

Over the course of Dirty Jobs, I talked with hundreds of employers, employees, and entrepreneurs in every state. Without question, the most common complaint was a shortage of people willing to learn a useful skill and work their butts off. In spite of rising unemployment, this was a real challenge for companies that needed to hire skilled labor. It still is. And so mikeroweWORKS began as an online trade resource center -- a place where people could investigate educational opportunities that didn't require a four-year degree. It quickly grew into a non-profit foundation that awards "work ethic scholarships," and supports a variety of programs and organizations that will fill the void left by vanishing high school shop classes.

Somewhere along the way, I became a visible and somewhat respected advocate of apprenticeship programs all over the country. I've addressed both houses of Congress, and weighed in often on a variety of topics for which I have no real qualifications. (If you've got an extra eight minutes to kill you can watch me tell some senators how to close the skills gap and save the economy.)

Today, mikeroweWORKS continues to expand. With college debt north of a trillion dollars, and a skills gap that continues to widen, I can't say if our efforts have been futile or prescient. I only know that technical recruitment continues to be a massive challenge for many companies, and too many parents and guidance counselors continue to push a four-year degree as though it's the best fit for the most people. That's a big fat mistake, and it's creating all sorts of havoc in our workforce and in our educational system. It's also sending kids into the world with crushing debt, and no skills to do the work that's actually available.

So I'll keep talking about these issues to whoever cares to listen, with slightly less of an emphasis on implied bestiality. That was just for TED. Give it a look. If you've got questions, post away, and I'll try to post a few answers this week.


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