Léon Harmel, a successful 19th century French industrialist, recognized the dignity of workers — all workers. As an employer, he provided just wages, safe working conditions, housing, and retirement and health benefits when neither regulations nor competition for labor required them. His example inspired a papal encyclical that explored the connection between humanity and work.
A century after Harmel’s death, his example inspired Brian Black and Ryan Pohl to create a new kind of Catholic postsecondary school. They wanted to unite the humanities with skilled trade training in a way that would fill workforce gaps and teach students how human dignity is tied to work. Harmel Academy of the Trades opened in 2020. It welcomed students like May 2022 graduate Josiah Johnson who wanted to pursue a job in the trades because he found joy in skilled work.
Johnson and five others were part of Harmel Academy’s first graduating class. The graduates came from all over the country, but have remained a community. They are now all working and living in Grand Rapids, Mich., where the school is located. Graduate Daniel Parker said he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life, but the school, its teachers, and students showed him the future he could have.
“Léon Harmel lived during a time of revolution in France. There was a lot of talking about workers’ rights, but he actually did something,” explained Black. “His example animates us. When young, Catholic men graduate from high school and they want to work with their hands, there’s not a place for them to go to develop a skill and develop as a human. We wanted to serve these young men.”
While students need a high school diploma or GED to apply, the ACT or SAT are not required. To help finance their education, students earn income at apprenticeships with employers that are fully integrated with the school’s schedule and program. Financial support also is available through a Solidarity Fund, an income share agreement initiated and funded by the Charles Koch Foundation. Students are able to attend the academy at a greatly reduced initial cost by using the Solidarity Fund to defer tuition until they are financially stable after graduation and working full time.
To build a sense of community and belonging among students during their intellectual and vocational journeys, Harmel Academy provides on-campus housing. This residential aspect was important to Black and Pohl. May 2022 graduate Matthew Asselin said living with fellow students gave him the chance to examine his strengths and weaknesses.
“There is power in being together,” said Black. “Early on, we met with the president of a local manufacturing firm who told us his apprenticeship at 18 was the loneliest time in his life. He had no one to relate to, or call when he needed to tackle a problem. Our college community offers the chance to form life-long relationships.”
Harmel Academy is the only trade school in the country with a humanities curriculum customized for young men who want to work in the skilled trades. Students participate in conversation-based seminars that discuss themes from theology, philosophy, history, literature, and ethics as they are presented in everything from film to podcasts to Shakespeare. The curriculum is rigorous, accessible, and conversational, with an emphasis on using Socratic method to foster conversation, creativity, and imagination. Graduate Nathan Hatley said the humanities curriculum was a major selling point for him. It demonstrated he could be both a “learned man” and a hard worker.
“What we’re trying to do is give these guys the confidence to engage great questions and problems,” said Black. “We want to get their imaginations going and let them know that, as people who work with their hands, they have a lot to offer to debates about justice, morality, and ethics.”
Tackling questions of philosophy and ethics helps students understand their own dignity as workers — which is why Black sees the integrated humanities curriculum as a potential answer to the U.S. jobs gap. May 2022 graduate Josh Gieger said the curriculum helped him see himself and his place in the world differently.
“Industry sees the skills gap as a training issue, but really our labor shortage is due to the fact that workers don’t know why to bother,” said Black. “Viewing yourself only as a worker is barely hanging onto any truth about who we are as humans. It leads to despair. It leads to isolation and lack of engagement. People need to use their imagination, and are not fully human without it. We are training young men to believe that work is good and that through it they can help transform the world.”
Black said this framing gives employers a deeper way of looking at today’s labor crisis. When employers recognize employees for the unique value they bring, it reduces turnover and increases job performance and satisfaction.
Harmel Academy partners with local firms committed to honoring the dignity, skills, and character of all workers. As graduate Karsten Molitor explained, the school helps students find jobs at these firms.
Black said his hope for Harmel Academy’s 2022 class, and the students who come after, is that they will be good stewards of the life they were given. “Of course I’d like to see these guys start their own companies and lead the way Léon Harmel did,” said Black. “But if they stay in their current trade for their entire career and do that in an excellent way, I’d be happy. That path is not often seen as success, but if you do something well for a lifetime, that’s an excellent thing.”
Read more about Harmel Academy of the Trades here.