Home -> Articles -> Mike's Blogs -> Off The Wall: College Degree Required for Elected Officials
ofw mike rowe and pencil

Off The Wall: College Degree Required for Elected Officials

otw Confusing Qualifications with Competency is the PointKyle Smith writes…

Howard Dean recently criticized Gov Scott Walker for never finishing college, stating that he was “unknowledgeable.” What would your response be on college as a requirement for elected office?

Hi Kyle

Back in 1990, The QVC Cable Shopping Channel was conducting a national talent search. I had no qualifications to speak of, but I needed a job, and thought TV might be a fun way to pay the bills. So I showed up at The Marriott in downtown Baltimore with a few hundred other hopefuls, and waited for a chance to audition. When it was my turn, the elevator took me to the top floor, where a man no expression led me into a suite and asked me to take a seat behind a large desk. Across from the desk, there was a camera on a tripod. On the desk was a digital timer with an LED display. I took a seat as the man clipped a microphone on my shirt and explained the situation.

“The purpose of this audition is to see if you can talk for eight minutes without stuttering, blathering, passing out, or throwing up. Any questions?”

“What would you like me to talk about,” I asked.

The man pulled a pencil from behind his ear and rolled it across the desk. “Talk to me about that pencil. Sell it. Make me want it. But be yourself. If you can do that for eight minutes, the job is yours. Ok?”

I looked at the pencil. It was yellow. It had a point on one end, and an eraser on the other. On the side were the words, Dixon Ticonderoga Number 2 SOFT.

“Ok,” I said.

The man set the timer to 8:00, and walked behind the tripod. He pressed a button and a red light appeared on the camera. He pressed another button and the timer began to count backwards. “Action,” he said. I picked up the pencil and started talking.

“Hi there. My name’s Mike Rowe, and I only have eight minutes to tell you why this is finest pencil on Planet Earth. So let’s get right to it.”

I opened the desk drawer and found a piece of hotel stationary, right where I hoped it would be. I picked up the pencil and wrote the word, QUALITY in capital letters. I held the paper toward the camera.

“As you can plainly see, The #2 Dixon Ticonderoga leaves a bold, unmistakable line, far superior to the thin and wispy wake left by the #3, or the fat, sloppy skid mark of the unwieldy #1. Best of all, the Ticonderoga is not filled with actual lead, but “madagascar graphite,” a far safer alternative for anyone who likes to chew on their writing implements.”

To underscore the claim, I licked the point. I then discussed the many advantages of the Ticonderoga’s color.

“A vibrant yellow, perfectly suited for an object that needs to stand out from the clutter of a desk drawer.”

I commented on the comfort of it’s design.

“Unlike those completely round pencils that press hard into the web of your hand, the Ticonderoga’s circumference is comprised of eight, gently plained surfaces, which dramatically reduce fatigue, and make writing for extended periods an absolute delight.”

I pointed out the “enhanced eraser,” which was “guaranteed to still be there – even when the pencil was sharpened down to an unusable nub.”

I opined about handmade craftsmanship and American made quality. I talked about the feel of real wood.

“In a world overrun with plastic and high tech gadgets, isn’t it comforting to know that some things haven’t evolved into something shiny and gleaming and completely unrecognizable?’”

After all that, there was still five minutes on the timer. So I shifted gears and considered the pencil’s impact on Western Civilization. I spoke of Picasso and Van Gogh, and their hundreds of priceless drawings – all done in pencil. I talked about Einstein and Hawking, and their many complicated theories and theorems – all done in pencil.

“Pen and ink are fine for memorializing contracts,” I said, “but real progress relies on the ability to erase and start anew. Archimedes said he could move the world with a lever long enough, but when it came to proving it, he needed a pencil to make the point.”

With three minutes remaining, I moved on to some personal recollections about the role of pencils in my own life. My first legible signature, my first book report, my first crossword puzzle, and of course, my first love letter. I may have even worked up a tear as I recalled the innocence of my youth, scribbled out on a piece of looseleaf with all the hope and passion a desperate 6th grader could muster…courtesy of a #2 pencil.

With :30 seconds left on the timer, I looked fondly at the Dixon Ticonderoga, and sat silently for five seconds. Then I wrapped it up.

“We call it a pencil, because all things need a name. But today, let’s call it what it really is. A time machine. A match maker. A magic wand. And let’s say it can all be yours…for just .99 cents.”

The timer read 0:00. The man walked back to the desk. He took the pencil and wrote “YOU’RE HIRED” on the stationary, and few days later, I moved to West Chester, PA. And a few days after that, I was on live television, face to face with the never-ending parade of trinkets and chotchkies that comprise QVC’s overnight inventory.

I spent three months on the graveyard shift, five nights a week. Technically, this was my training period, which was curious, given the conspicuous absence of supervision, or anything that could be confused with actual instruction. Every few minutes a stagehand would bring me another mysterious “must have item,” which I’d blather about nonsensically until it was whisked away and replaced with something no less baffling. In this way, I slowly uncovered the mysteries of my job, and forged a tenuous relationship with an audience of chronic insomniacs and narcoleptic lonely-hearts. It was a crucible of confusion and ambiguity, and in hindsight, the best training I ever had.

Which brings me to the point of your question, Kyle.
I don’t agree with Howard Dean – not at all.

Here’s what I didn’t understand 25 years ago. QVC had a serious recruiting problem. Qualified candidates were applying in droves, but failing miserably on the air. Polished salespeople with proven track records were awkward on TV. Professional actors with extensive credits couldn’t be themselves on camera. And seasoned hosts who understood live television had no experience hawking products. So eventually, QVC hit the reset button. They stopped looking for “qualified” people, and started looking for anyone who could talk about a pencil for eight minutes.

QVC had confused qualifications with competency.
Perhaps America has done something similar?

Look at how we hire help – it’s not so different than how we elect leaders. We search for work ethic on resumes. We look for intelligence in test scores. We search for character in references. And of course, we look at a four-year diploma as though it might actually tell us something about common-sense and leadership.

Obviously, we need a bit more from our elected officials than the instincts of a home shopping host, but the business of determining what those “qualifications” are is completely up to us. We get to decide what matters most. We get to decide if a college degree or military service is somehow determinative. We get to decide if Howard Dean is correct.

Anyone familiar with my foundation knows my position. I think a trillion dollars of student loans and a massive skills gap are precisely what happens to a society that actively promotes one form of education as the best course for the most people. I think the stigmas and stereotypes that keep so many people from pursuing a truly useful skill, begin with the mistaken belief that a four-year degree is somehow superior to all other forms of learning. And I think that making elected office contingent on a college degree is maybe the worst idea I’ve ever heard.

But of course, Howard Dean is not the real problem. He’s just one guy. And he’s absolutely right when he says that many others will judge Scott Walker for not finishing college. That’s the real problem.

However – when Howard Dean called the Governor “unknowledgeable,” he rolled out more than a stereotype. He rolled a pencil across the desk, and gave Scott Walker eight minutes to knock it out of the park.

It’ll be fun to see if he does.


Mike’s Facebook Page

  • Pingback: Commentary: Off The Wall: Confusing Qualifications with Competency is the Point | Democratic Thinker

  • Pingback: Confusing Qualifications with Competency is the Point | Explore The Trades

  • Paul Nee


    I couldn’t agree with you more. I dropped out of college after1 year and a few years later ended up in the Carpenters Union Apprenticeship program. This happened in 1978. Since then
    I was able to hone my skills and ended up being a foreman, jobsite safety
    coordinator and job site superintendent. Then I was afforded the opportunity to
    be an instructor within the apprenticeship program. I did have to go back to
    college for 2 courses so I had the skills to teach adults. I taught fulltime for 8 years and after what consider a great career in the construction industry in the Puget Sound region of
    Washington state, I was able to retire at 57 1/2.
    I still work for my previous employer conducting outreach events at high schools and career fairs throughout the Northwest on a part-time basis, because I know the importance of what a good career can be and all without a college degree.

    Thanks for the work you do in promoting the need to provide young adults alternatives to the
    “everyone must go to college” mentality we are constantly bombarded
    with here in the USA. All one has to do is look at Germany and their
    educational system and see also that their unemployment rate has been far
    better than ours over the past 15 years.

    Keep up the good work,


  • David Nelson


    First I should mention that I’ve liked some of the things you’ve written in the past, although we don’t agree on other things. I also agree that a university education is not for everyone. People have different interests and aptitudes. It totally makes sense that some will opt for a tech college, apprenticeship, or on-the-job training. The important thing is to have opportunity and to maintain a strong university system. America is experiencing increasing competition from other countries in jobs, health and education. While the economic crash hurt many places worse than the US, we can’t count on that fact to sustain us in the future. What is very real is the growing gap between rich and poor. One way or another, our politicians need to make decisions which increase employment, especially jobs that pay decently, have benefits and are not so likely to disappear. At times, workers are almost nomadic as they trudge across the country trying to find a job which is semi-permanent.

    As for Governor Walker, I was until recently a Wisconsin resident and have paid attention to Walker’s decisions and actions. He has serious trouble behaving in an ethical way. I don’t say that because we have different beliefs. It is shown in the double talking and back room dealing of his administration. I wish he would argue practical matters directly with his opponents and encourage his supporters to do the same. Instead, we get partisan bickering. So… it won’t be fun for me to see whether Walker knocks it out of the park. That’s politics and public opinion. I’d rather he got down to governing by sound principle and speaking straight. There will still be differences in opinion, but more people will have jobs, and the dialogue will be a heck of a lot better.

  • Pingback: Mike Rowe Nails It! - Strategy Shapers

  • Gary Gaenzle

    Good morning Mike,
    In the following sentence(one of the last few paragraphs), there is a typo which I bolded here: Look at how we hire help – it’s no so different than how we elect leaders(I believe you meant “not”). I love your messages and agree with most of your opinions including this one. I haven’t been able to reach out to you personally so I guess I will post this here.

    Forever a fan,



    Mike: I read this with great interest because I have been a fan of Mr Rowe for some time. I found it very impressive and with all the hype about Gov Scott Walkers education it make me realize as I have always thought you do not have to be a genius to be successful. Hard work, common sense and determination will get you a long way.

  • Pingback: Mike Rowe: Qualification, competency and the pursuit of knowledge | Hispanic Tiempo Magazine

  • scotmanart

    Mike , I thought your Eagle Scout Jamboree suggestion for a Dirty Jobs Merit Badge was a fine stroke of genius! FloriDUH needs your help!
    ( No, not just our alien invasion reelected Guv)

    Or at least comedy relief & whimsy!
    (Seth Myers said” its been 9 years since a hurricane hit us- we just look this way!”)

    Bet the local guiding lights of our little slouchy beachtown’d give you the keys to the city & a parade seat with the Bud Clydesdales! Lotta gearheads of all stripes! & a cool source of revenue stream for your goodworks foundation!

    Keep the faith!
    &get Floriduh! warm in March!

  • scotmanart

    oh yeah, I forgot! Free Beer!
    Daytona Bike Week March 6-15th

  • KeMA

    Interestingly, the State of New York allows for experiential education in lieu of formal (framed) education to qualify to sit for the required exam to become a licensed architect. When corresponding with the State Education Dept. (issuer of the license) in frustration with the state of Iowa in not recognizing reciprocity, The Executive Secretary of the NY State Board of Education indicated that many other States are not ‘progressive’ in their regulations. Now an entire regime, labeled “National Council of Architectural Registration Board” (NCARB) has evolved in light of States inability to regulate with some common language, requirements or sense. The unfortunate piece of NCARB is that they hunt non-educated professionals with their publications including phrases of non-qualification threats, bordering on personal defamation.

    I qualified to sit for the 4 day NY exam after 13 years of post high school experience. I remember, during the exam – Buffalo 1990. It was the last day – the 8 hour graphic design. We began at 8 am. Programs opened, read, and off we went, into our heads as deep as we could muster memory of calculations, relational data, regulations and in some order of design matching the program elements laid before us. The coliseum was packed with about 250 young aspiring wanna-be licensed professionals. Their degrees, student loans and in some cases, relationships were suspended, hanging on their ability to master this exam, to become an architect.

    During the exam there is a point at which a candidate cannot turn back. They are committed, whether their 4 drawing solution is worthy of all program elements or not. 2 pm. There were people tearing their drawings from their drafting tables! I couldn’t relate. It was distracting but I halted only briefly in curiosity. Then it hit me! My two story building was allowed only two stairs by program. I needed another to exit from a wing that presented a dead end – meaning exactly what it is labeled – that distance that exceeds maximums allowed without a continued exit. I had to drop the exam, follow suit by tearing it up and quitting OR buckle down, move through it and resolve the issue.

    I broke the program rules, I knew it square away when I drew in the third stairwell. I reasoned, ‘I would do the same with a client, providing a safe building, I can explain “safety”.’ I also reasoned that if I failed it was with practical and applied effort.

    I passed.

    There was no explanation from the graders on my having qualified or not with the added stair. I still keep the trace drawings that show the concept and before the finished draft that I submitted at 8 pm and at the proctors command, ‘put down your pencils!’ This is my degree.

    About a year later, when interviewing in Ottumwa Iowa with an accomplished architectural firm, I sat at a conference table waiting for the proprietor to return from a phone call and to continue our discussion. As he talked across the room, I scanned a drawing – the plan for a new County Nature Center was full out in front of me. There it was! I was staring boldly in the face of a code violation – a narrow corridor with a door presenting a dead end corridor and disallowing clearances for the handicapped. Needless to say, when the proprietor returned the interview went sour. It essentially reversed, as I questioned the design. The proprietor was outlandish in his response, something in the range of ‘you are the uneducated.’

    I practiced for a couple of years as a designer, which is allowed for non-professionals designing buildings of limited scale. I had met another architect, working at the Pella window company who was interested in building an architectural firm. We did our homework, assuming that the area could use the competition. We made application to practice as an architectural firm and through the State licensing board in Ames Iowa. We received authorization, though were surprised with a call from the executive secretary of the board about a week later. ‘Revoked.’ My future (and past) partner was told that he, being a licensed architect in Iowa, would be facing 4 counts of fraud, the most severe was not disclosing his intent to drive from Pella to Ottumwa to my, the, office every day! Iowa requires that at minimum of 50% of an architectural firms principals be licensed in-State and working in the main office of practice. The other three charges were as petty.

    Long story short: The presiding officer of the board was the architect that I interviewed with. He had been on vacation when our application was processed, reviewed and approved. There was a hearing. I was not charged, due to my out-of-State licensure. My prospective partner was grilled, to say the least, sitting on a stool in the middle of his regulating peers and scared out of his wits, with statements and threats tempered with admonishment and revocation of practice and license. Shortly after, he moved out of State. So did I. We are still good friends. — The County building was built. I have no idea if it is compliant or not.

    I grew up in Iowa. I always knew my place with hard work and application. This was a devistating blow for both myself and my prospective partner. We couldn’t believe it. We still don’t.

    Moral: Hard work is not without a mind securely attached. If there is an exam, let it be for all, rather than a preferential process of those who carry the paper. It is the breech of prime dignity and personal respect where the State allowed relegation in conflict of interest, circumventing forthright and honest intentions. No one ever asked “Why Mr. Steffen?” We moved on and are still working hard, each where we belong.