The expectation that every young person in America needs a four-year degree doesn’t line up with the needs of our workforce, suggested Mike Rowe, a television personality and the keynote speaker at the American Farm Bureau Federation’s annual convention Jan. 13.

Rowe, who rose to fame through his show “Dirty Jobs” which highlights underappreciate­d careers that are also essential to keeping the lights on and food on the table, is a proponent of offering students alternative paths to gainful employment.

“Pre-pandemic, there were about 7 million open positions that didn’t require a four-year degree,” Rowe said. “We’re starting to realize in our zeal to make a more persuasive case for higher education, we created a [disincentive] around alternative education, two-year degrees, community college, apprenticeships and trade schools. Those things fell out of favor.”

In addition to his TV career, Rowe also oversees a foundation which annually awards scholarships to students seeking a degree or certification through one of these alternative routes. 

Rowe’s belief in the value of learning a trade began well before his TV career, back to his life growing up on a small farm near Baltimore. There, he watched and worked with his grandfather, who Rowe called a generalist who could do almost anything.

Value in diverse skills

“He was an electrician by trade, but also a plumber. He just had the touch. He possessed so many broad-based skills,” he said. “I realize now that just like my granddad, farmers are magicians, they can pivot so fast. And, they’re generalists … I’m still enamored of the renaissance worker and the generalist who can do a lot of things really well.

“If you really wanted to profile a generalist, somebody who can lay pipe, run electric, build a digester, turn the poop into something that heats their house, so forth and so on, just talk to a farmer.”

He contends today’s higher education style doesn’t offer a wide enough variety of experiences and career opportunities.

“When people go to school to get very, very good at one thing, which comes in handy if you need brain surgery, I’m all for it.” But Rowe said this level of specialization isn’t necessary for a lot of really well paying jobs that are going unfilled today.