Tracy Wilson is sitting in the cutest little ranch house in this Calvert County town. It is her dream house — literally her dream house, she explains, as she has had the image of this very home in her mind, down to the color scheme of the exterior.
It is 4 in the afternoon, and the single mother of two just got home from another dream — her job. She spends her days working as an instrumentation technician in the flight test program at Boeing.
“I get to spend my days working on F-18s,” she exclaims several times during the interview. She says it with such joy that her appreciation for her craft becomes infectious.
Life wasn’t always this balanced for the Exeter, Pennsylvania, native. In her senior year of high school, she underwent open-heart surgery for a hole in her heart after the healthy basketball athlete suffered a stroke. “The stroke temporarily took my speech and my handwriting,” she said. “So I was freaking out because I was so ready to start the next part of my life after high school.”
She recovered but found her life directionless after high school. Wilson explains that she wanted to go to college, but without any clarity on what she should pursue and little money to attend, she bounced from career to career, trying to find her greater.
In between, she married, had two boys, divorced. She found herself still searching, still wanting to better herself, still deeply committed to the work ethic her parents had taught her, yet living on the edge of poverty, cleaning houses, exhausted and still struggling to put food on the table.
“One day, I was sitting on the couch feeling sorry for myself, watching TV, and I — this commercial came on for York Technical Institute, and something about it clicked in my brain. I went to their website, and the electrician program caught my eye,” Wilson explained.
“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” she told me. “I was always in my dad’s little workshop doing whatever I could, hooking up wires. I saw it was a nine-month program and called and took a tour of the school. I ended up being more intrigued by their electronics engineering technology program, and I turned to the counselor and said, ‘Sign me up.’”
Wilson said she still had to clean houses to bring an income in. “I remember I had about 10 dollars in my checking account that day,” she said.
Several months into her education, Wilson found out about the Work Ethic Scholarship Program from the Mike Rowe WORKS Foundation. The program provides financial support to students enrolled in trade school training programs who have demonstrated a continuing commitment to personal responsibility, a positive attitude and a strong work ethic.
“I was like, ‘Hey, I am a huge ‘Dirty Jobs’ fan,'” she said of Rowe’s wildly popular Discovery Channel show, in which he does every trade job created that makes the clocks, trains, planes and automobiles run on time and keeps your toilet flushing, too. Rowe made a reality show out of unglamorous yet essential jobs that make everyone’s lives safer and more comfortable. He brought to the forefront not just their existence but also the value these jobs have for the people who do them.
Rowe said in an interview that he was inspired to create the scholarship fund in the summer of 2008. “’Dirty Jobs’ was a runaway hit, the country was entering a recession, unemployment was headline news,” he said. “But everywhere I went on ‘Dirty Jobs,’ I saw ‘Help Wanted’ signs. It slowly dawned on me that high unemployment did not necessarily stem from a lack of opportunity. I remember being surprised to learn that 2.3 million jobs were open when the unemployment rate surpassed 10%.”
When a financial reporter at the Wall Street Journal asked his take on how such a skills gap could exist during times of high unemployment, Rowe shared his theory.
“Much of society had waged a war on work,” he said. “And I talked at length about the stigmas and stereotypes that surrounded many of the jobs we featured on the show, along with the myths and misperceptions that keep so many people from exploring a career in the trades.”
The reporter printed Rowe’s thoughts, word for word, and the next day, his phone started ringing off the hook. Companies and organizations wanted to partner with him to make a more persuasive case for the jobs in their industries.
“That’s what convinced me to do something; something to help the industries that had allowed me to get and keep ‘Dirty Jobs’ on the air,” he said. “That led me to launch an informal PR campaign for unloved jobs that required skill, and not a four-year degree. I called it mikeroweWORKS and launched it on Labor Day of 2008.”
That led to an Online Trade Resource Center built by fans of the show — a job board of sorts for skilled trade workers.
“Today, we’re primarily a scholarship fund with an advocacy arm — which is me,” said Rowe.
Applicants must earn the scholarship, much like they would get a job through merit. “You have to provide a video and essay explaining why you believe you deserve the scholarship,” said Wilson. She also noted that applicants must take the SWEAT pledge (it stands for “skill & work ethic aren’t taboo”) to keep up a hardworking mindset. “And then, you have to submit a video essay to discuss your thoughts on that topic,” Wilson said.
When she got the scholarship, Wilson said, she did a cartwheel. The process not only prepared her for a successful mindset, but it also taught her a lot about herself.
“Before I applied, I really underestimated myself. I came out of it more confident and realized I was smarter than I was giving myself credit for. I had more grit than I thought I had.”
For generations, high schools have geared young people to apply to universities and colleges. They have largely ignored and dismissed trades as either beneath them or not part of achieving the American dream.
As a result, many young people obtained expensive degrees that have few job prospects, and their debt lasts them well into their 40s. This has also created a culture that has lost its connection with the value and appreciation of skilled labor and the joy of getting your hands dirty.
On Feb. 23, Rowe’s scholarship application process opens for 2022. Across the country, there are thousands of Tracy Wilsons out there attending community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs, eager to show their value, even when so many do not acknowledge it. Wilson encourages anyone who is even remotely considering applying to do it.
“Not just for the money — which was nice by the way — but because you also get to experience expressing and understanding the importance of work,” she says. “It is a virtue we don’t value enough in society, but we can change that one job at a time.”
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner.