Home -> Articles -> MTI Interviews mikeroweWORKS Foundation President Mary Sullivan
Mary Sullivan MTI

MTI Interviews mikeroweWORKS Foundation President Mary Sullivan

Mary Sullivan MTIYou Have to Start Somewhere

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.

worksmart-and-hard-199x300Even 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.

  • oceandiva

    Bravo! I worked in industry, then taught 2-year programs in biomed equipment technologies, electronics technologies, and computer technology(also occasionally subbed in auto-diesel and medical tech programs). My students left with minimal debt and jobs. Now I tutor high schoolers cleaning up common core math and science messes. I have been spreading your message for 20 years (and I have degrees out the wazoo). Good for you. Anything else I can do to help….

  • Reta Bates

    I want to say Happy Birthday to Mary Sullivian!!

  • https://www.facebook.com/groups/179513092255225/ Wayne

    Happy Birthday Mary

  • Paul Milam

    Awesome! Thanks for giving the ones who don’t go to a “regular” college a chance and happy birthday!

  • Robert Puls

    Have a Blessed & Happy Birthday.

  • Paul Johnson

    Mike Rowe instructed me to say “Happy Birthday” to you, Mary Sullivan. So, here I am, wishing you not only a Happy Birthday, but also congratulations for becoming attached to a fine fellow and someone I greatly admire. And I can say, without hesitation, that I equally admire you, because after all, if Mike Rowe admires you so much, I can’t help but do the same. All the best to you!

  • WeCareAboutYou

    Happy Birthday Mary! Hope your day was a fabulous one! As a special education teacher I so appreciate the spot light you have put on alternate education and careers for technical trades! Thank you, thank you, thank you. Keep up the pressure – we need to bring this back into our schools and stop making kids feel bad for being something other than typical “Stanford” material.

  • http://wordfragger.com Edmund Meinhardt

    Hi, Mary. Mike tells good stories and tells them well. I’m glad he shared yours. It’s a good one. Happy birthday!

  • David Rosier

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan, and thank you for helping Mike Rowe be a part of our lives.

  • Curtis Johnson

    Happy B’Day Mary…keep up the good work ;)

  • Jane DeCoster

    Happy Birthday, Mary Sullivan. Bless you for believing in Mike and what he stands for. Bet it’s been an amazing journey!

  • Kat Peterson

    A very happy birthday to you Mary and thanks for your great work!

  • Terri

    Happy Birthday Mary, what a great team you and Mike are. Hope your birthday is wonderful

  • majormike89

    Happy Birthdaty Mary – evidently you are a jewel.

  • Daniel Kilby

    Happy Birthday and may you have a blessed new year!

  • Russ Marcham

    Happy Birthday Mary, you’re going to get thousands of these from total strangers, but if a class act such as Mike says to wish you a Happy Birthday, by god I’m going to do it.

  • Darrell Andrews

    Happy birthday Mary, thanks for getting Mike to SkillsUSA. He has been a great help in spreading the word of the skilled worker. You guys are doing some great things keep up the good work.

  • David Everhart

    Happy birthday Mary. I love what you are doing with this foundstion. There is no other quite like this on as for the way you implement it. I wish you, Mike, and the foundation all the best. Keep doing what you all are doing. Futures depend on it.

  • Jim Bernardin

    Happy birthday Mary Sullivan.

  • Richard A Knox

    Happy Birthday Mary. Nice to see you doing well.

  • http://www.scubacindy.com Cynthia McCasland

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan. We love Mike!!

  • Sam2001

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan! You took a chance and look where it gets you, lots of very sincere and affectionate birthday greetings, all because of our adopted family-member, Mike Rowe.

    May you be blessed in the coming year and Happy Holidays Starting with Thanksgiving, and ending when-ever.

  • Lou Foss

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan!!

  • CatoYounger

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan – you rock!

  • Kenneth Ducharme

    Happy birthday to a very special lady – you must be to put up with Mike.

  • Eric J. Hendley

    Happy Birthday Mary!!!!!!

  • john k

    Happy B-Day M

  • James

    Happy Birthday Mary ! We’ve all had more than we want to admit but I just had #59 a couple weeks ago. May you have many more. :)

  • Jenny Garnsey

    Happy Birthday, Mary. :) Hope you get a good long vacation soon.

  • Jeffrey VanZant

    Grace and Peace, Mary. Enjoy the day and all that it holds.

  • Jake White

    Hey Mary! Hope you have a wonderful Birthday from a huge fan of Mike Rowe in Madison, AL. Thanks for keeping Mike working.

  • Joe Lejzerowicz

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan!!!! You are the best!!!

    Oh by the way can I name one of my racehorse foals after you and Mike??

  • Mark Kitchen

    Happy Birthday Mary!

  • Spurgeon Hendrick

    Happy birthday Mary!! Kudos on a job well done and on a life well lived.

  • Elvis0101

    Happy birthday Mary. I’m glad you and Mike partnered up. God bless.

  • John Retzlaff

    Happy Birthday!! Hope you had a great day!!

  • Carla Supik

    Happy Birthday!! Keep Mike going strong!

  • Julie Daniels

    Hippo birdie two ewe…

  • http://lorenakoran.wordpress.com Lori K. Hobbs

    Happy Birthday to Mary! I wish you many many more and much happiness!

  • Dean Hartley

    Hi Mary, happy birthday and happy Thanksgiving. Hope you and the family have a great time during the holidays. I am a big fan of Mike Rowe and like his shows on CNN and Dirty Jobs. Thanks for helping him out. We all know he needs as much help as he can get. Keep up the good work, please keep him real busy, otherwise he could get into serious trouble. I am sure that at times he can be a pain in the butt, but I gather he’s a loveable pain in the butt. Have a great day.

  • Gary L Broock

    Happy Birthday Mary Sullivan and thank you for helping pore ol Mike LOL

  • John Bennett

    Happy Birthday to Mary. Thank you for helping our young adults with career choices other than college. America needs skilled labor.

  • Mike Prichard

    Happy belated Birthday Mary Sullivan. And thank you for making Mike what he is today!!!

  • s s

    Happy Birthday, belated.


    Happy 26th Birthday, Mary! Sorry I’m late, but I just found the ‘Mike Rowe Schools Liberal’ article on Fox News Nation, and got here from there.
    Must be a hoot to work with Mike. Hopefully the laughs make up for the loss of income.

  • Nancy Short

    Like Mike and yourself, I too, am from good ole Baltimore HON…..never met Mike but watch his shows, he’s funny, and above anything else, he’s down to earth, one of the regular guys…gotta love Mike…..Happy Birthday Mary!

  • Spirit of 1791

    Happy birthday Mary, and thank you for keeping Mike Rowe presentable!

  • Tom Walzem

    Hi Mary, I am part of a team creating an agency that will teach trade skills to young adults in a very poor part of California. I feel it would be remiss of me to not see if we can some how work together. Is there someone I can contact to start a dialog?
    Thanks in advance.
    Tom Walzem

  • Robin Fournier

    Happy Birthday Mary! Because you work smart AND hard…..it’s no wonder you fit perfectly into MRW:) Have a great birthday and thank you for taking care of Mike Rowe and MRW!