MTI Interviews mikeroweWORKS Foundation President Mary Sullivan
In a little less than three months, the number of submissions for this year’s mrWF/MTI Scholarship Program has far exceeded all of last year’s total, clocking in at more than 1,800 entries. To discover the possible reasons behind this surge, MTI reached out to mikeroweWORKS Foundation President Mary Sullivan to discuss what she sees as the foundation’s role in reversing the often negative perception of skilled labor jobs and the power of simply sharing success stories from those within skilled labor career fields.
Mary graciously took time out of her busy schedule to discuss all that and more, including how school counselors and parents can do their part in giving today’s young people the best and most well-rounded information when it comes to their education after high school.
Midwest Technical Institute: Can you talk a little about the mission of the foundation and how it positions itself to fulfill that mission?
Mary Sullivan: Sure. At base, the Foundation is PR Campaign and a Scholarship Program that focuses on skilled trades and alternative education. We try to call attention to several million available jobs that require training and skill, by challenging the prevailing definition of a “good job.” Our main purpose is to promote opportunities in the skilled trades, and challenge the persistent belief that a four-year degree is the best path for the most people. Toward that end, we provide financial assistance to individuals looking to get trained for jobs that actually exist.
Is that an anti-college message?
Not at all. As Mike likes to say, we’re pro-education, but anti-debt. We’re suspicious of the idea that a massive student loan is the best way to start off in life. We believe a lot of good jobs go begging, because they’ve no longer portrayed as aspirational. Over the past forty years or so, the push for college has come at the expense of many other forms of education. Hence, today’s false choice of “Higher Education” vs. “Alternative Education.” Language matters, and we believe that kind of labeling has widened America’s skills gap – even at a time of high-unemployment. We’d like to change that, by debunking many of the stereotypes and stigmas that discourage people from pursuing a long list of great opportunities.
Aside from offering this scholarship, what other sorts of things (campaigns, initiatives, etc) does the foundation participate in to reach students?
We’ve funded tool scholarships in concert with the AED Foundation. We’ve provided travel scholarships to allow kids to compete at the national convention for SkillsUSA. We’ve built an on-line information and resource center at www.mikeroweworks.com. Mike gives speeches all over the country, and goes to Congress every few years to raise hell. We run a rolling fundraiser called C.R.A.P. (Collectible Rare and Precious,) whereby Mike auctions off the crap in his garage to raise money for the foundation and maintain a general awareness about what we’re trying to accomplish. We’ve also partnered with a few like-minded initiatives, including Go Build Alabama, Don’t Fail Idaho, and I Make America. The real challenge around a topic like this is delivering the message in a way that isn’t boring or biased. You won’t hear cello music behind our materials, or see sappy images of people welding in slow motion. Mike prefers to position himself as a beneficiary of a skilled workforce – not its spokesman, and we try hard to remain authentic. This foundation grew directly out of his experiences on Dirty Jobs, and it retains much of the same humor.
It goes without saying that high school administrators, teachers, guidance counselors and even parents often encourage a degree from a four-year college and discourage training at a technical or vocational school. What can be done to reverse the perception that colleges or universities are the best path for every student in today’s world?
Actually, it doesn’t go without saying. A lot of parents don’t realize the bias until it’s pointed out. And I’ve been personally shocked by the number of people that have expressed surprise at the kind of opportunities available in the skilled trades. That’s why awareness is so important. Parents and guidance counselors also have a huge role to play because they strongly influence what path a kid decides to take. Until the parents and counselors are armed with the facts surrounding opportunities in the skilled trades, we are fighting an uphill battle. Remember – many of today’s well-intended parents are pushing their kids in the direction of a four-year degree because they’ve been told it’s the only acceptable path. That’s simply no longer true. The cost of a four-year degree has sky rocketed at the same time that jobs requiring a four year degree has constricted. Now kids are coming out of college with huge debt and are unable to find jobs in their chosen field. So fundamentally, the Foundation is trying to communicate that they’re other great paths that won’t leave a kid indebted and untrained.
Even though the nation’s job market is still suffering from a worker shortage amongst several skilled-trade career fields, would you say progress has been made in giving young people the skills to succeed in today’s workforce?
I can’t speak to the nation, but I can tell you that we and our partners have had an impact. Absolutely. Every day, we hear from people who tell us they’ve changed their minds about the viability of pursuing a skilled trade. Mike’s Facebook page is filled with people who tell stories about “hitting the re-set button” on their own careers. I’ve also started to notice a lot more articles questioning whether a college education is critical and pointing out the positives of alternate opportunities. But it will take time to reverse the bias against other forms of education. It took a 40-year PR campaign to elevate a college degree to where it is today. It’ll take time to remind people that other paths are no less viable. Changing perceptions take time, but you have to start somewhere.
Speaking of, are there ways for students to get involved with the foundation and help spread its message and mission?
The biggest thing anyone can do is be an advocate. Encourage kids who may be on the fence about a four-year degree to explore ALL the opportunities. In fact, people can also send their stories (particularly how they changed their minds or why they love what they do) to info@mikeroweworks, and we’ll share them on our sites. Those stories help us make a case for the skilled trades.
Lastly, the number of submissions received for this year’s scholarship program has already topped 1,700, which far exceeds all of last year’s entries. Do you feel this spike is important for the future of the foundation in terms of growth and reaching even more students?
Of course. The hardest thing for any Foundation is to have solid, concrete information that what you’re doing is making a difference, especially when you are trying to measure a perception change. The success of this campaign is proof positive that our message is resonating. Honestly, we appreciate any positive feedback, and the success of our program at MTI is big news. We’re excited and gratified to be a part of it.
Find out mikeroweWORKS/MIT Scholarship information HERE.