New Michigan vocational school combines Catholic education, skilled trades
Perry West Aug. 9, 2019
A new vocational school in Grand Rapids, Michigan will open its doors next year to young men interested in learning both a skilled trade and formation through a Catholic curriculum.
Harmel Academy is founded by Brain Black, head of Grand Rapids Construction, and Ryan Pohl, a journeyman CNC machinist. The program is supported by Kuyper College and Micron Manufacturing, both located in Grands Rapids, Michigan.
Black told CNA that the first year will begin with 12-15 students, and the program will grow each year. The goal is to offer students an authentically Catholic experience, like they might find at Thomas Aquinas College or Ave Maria University, he said, but with trades instead of a bachelor’s degree.
He said the students will have the opportunity to gain hands-on-experience in actual trades and grow in an understanding of “Christ in their lives as it relates specifically to work, their family life, and their own mission in the Church.”
“We are going to tell you about the integrity of your life. We are going to inform you about Christ who chose to become man as a carpenter, as a tradesman,” he added.
The two year program’s initial education will be centered on Machine and System Technology, which includes experience in electrical, machine operation, and 3D printing. The school will eventually add other skilled trades, including HVAC and plumbing. The curriculum is split into three parts: lessons, apprenticeship, and humanities.
Classes will take place both online and on the Kuyper campus, which can house 300 people. Students will work part-time in a particular trade as part of a paid apprenticeship. After two years, graduates will receive a certificate in their trade and be half-way through the completion of their journeymen card.
In addition to their education in a trade, students at Harmel Academy will receive spiritual formation through a two-year long humanities course. They will study history, philosophy, theology, and politics, with texts including papal documents and the works of Aristotle.
Black said the humanities course will not include lengthy written assignments, but is still designed to be challenging to the students, though classroom discussions and light reading.
“It's going to be very practical. It’s going to be rigorous and vigorous at the same time. We are planning on challenging and [investing] into some of this stuff because there are a lot of issues that young men have to face now.”
The humanities course will be split into four sections: the self, the other, the family, and the community, which includes courses on the nature of work, economics, politics, taxes, the structure of the state, and military service.
Students will also gather daily for the Divine Office’s morning prayer. Bishop David Walkowiak of Grand Rapids has approved the project and is helping the school find a priest so the campus can eventually hold Mass and retreats.
Black said the school wants to remain small to help to ensure strong relationships among the students and with the staff. The campus environment will be conducive to building genuine friendships, he said, noting that college relationships are a considerable aspect of formation.
“We want faculty and students to know each other well and larger than that size becomes difficult,” he said. “The key thing here is to foster a physical environment that fosters community. The college experience is a unique opportunity to form lifelong friendships.”
Tuition at Harmel Academy is $18,500 year, which covers room and board. To apply, candidates must have their GED or High School Diploma, a car, and letters of recommendation. The students must also take a personality test, pass a criminal background check and drug test, and undergo an interview process. The school’s accreditation process is in progress.
Black said he and Pohl came up with the idea for the school several years ago, upon noticing that some men were uninterested in a four-year college but still wanted to prepare for a career while in a Catholic environment.
“[Some] young men struggle with what to do when they had a strong mechanical interest. They don’t want the enormous debt of college and they didn’t feel called to spend that much time at something that didn’t really have a direct relationship to their lives,” he said.
“[These] men are more mechanically minded and it seemed like there really wasn’t anything in the Church [for them].”
Across the U.S. the skilled trades industries are seeing a labor shortage, as the number of workers retiring far outstrips the numbers entering the field.
Black said many young adults are a good fit for the typical four-year university experience, but others are more naturally suited for skilled trades, working with their hands, and seeing the results of their labor. He noted that Christ himself was a carpenter.
“I think the trades give young men a unique ability to truly imitate Christ and that’s pretty powerful stuff.”
Black is enthusiastic about the opportunities Harmel Academy will provide for its students. He said the goal of the academy is not only to lead young men to a career, but to form their understanding of work and faith.
“The key thing we are looking at here is forming a fully integrated man who knows what he is about [and] knows how God built him.”
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