Skilled Trades and Craftsmanship to Build a Meaningful Life

Mike Rowe makes an appearance in Des Moines for the Iowa Skilled Trades Alliance dinner. (Photo: Special to the Register/Home Builders Association of Iowa)


Like a dog with a bone I will not give up on this topic: the importance of skilled trades in America. You can have all the architects, designers, scientists in the world, but to get something actually built, you need skilled tradespeople. Modern civilization is not possible without them.

And now – at last – I have found a kindred spirit in this line of thinking:

Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” was in Des Moines, Iowa (one of my favorite cities) for an appearance at the Iowa Skilled Trades Alliance dinner, where he spoke about America’s skills gap which now includes more than 6.2 million vacant positions — most of which do not require four-year degrees, but rather, the kind of training programs that Des Moines is making a reality.

  • Per the Des Moines Register, Rowe has made it his personal mission to close the skills gap and fight the pervasive idea that the only path to success is a four-year college degree.
  • Rowe’s foundation, mikeroweWORKS, is set up to fund young people’s education in skilled trades.
  • In his speech and on his blog, Rowe specifically highlighted Iowa’s Central Campus Skilled Trades Academy, which offers hands-on, real-world experience and college credits with classes in welding, painting, drywall, home-building and plumbing.

Here are some additional takeaways from Iowa:

  • There are more than 8,000 active apprenticeships in Iowa right now, double since 2011
  • Des Moines has 3,000 job openings that require the mastery of a skill that’s in demand

Read on below for more on trends in the service industries which employ 45% of workers and are in desperate need of a rethink based on how important they are to the functioning of this country.

The Service Class: 45% of the entire workforce (Source:

  • 65 million Americans work in low-wage service class jobs e.g. food prep, retail, child care
  • They are the 21st century analog of the old blue-collar working class.

A new report released recently entitled Building 65 Million Good Jobs, outlines the size and scope of America’s service class, and describes what can be done to upgrade their jobs.

The chart below shows the transformation of the American workforce over the past century.

The changing structure of the American labor force, 1900-2010 (Martin Prosperity Institute)


  • In the early 1900s, the working class made up nearly 60% of the American workforce.
  • Today, it has declined to 20%, while America’s two other major classes have surged—the highly-skilled and highly paid creative class and the even larger service class.
  • Members of the service class make $32,272 per year. 30% less than the national average of $46,440 and less than half the $75,759 average for the creative class, who work in science and technology; business and management; arts, media, and culture; and healthcare, education, and law.
  • The lowest paid members of the service class—16 million food service and personal care workers—average less than $25,000 a year.
  • Service class work is performed primarily by women (62%) who make two-thirds of what service class men make.
  • Service class jobs make up more than half of all jobs in Orlando, Miami, San Antonio, Tampa, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Providence, Phoenix, New York, and Las Vegas.

The low wages paid to America’s 65 million service class workers stand at the heart of the nation’s rising inequality and decline of its middle class. And even as more workers continue to enter the creative class, the economy will continue to demand service jobs.

  • The only way to shrink America’s economic divide and rebuild the middle class is to upgrade the wages of its service class workers.
  • It’s been done before. During the first half of the 20th century, the United States turned low wage manufacturing work into middle-class, family-supporting work.
  • Henry Ford famously initiated his five dollar a day pay policy to enable blue collar workers to purchase the cars they were making on the assembly line.

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