Harmel Academy teaches the trades with a focus on faith
A conventional four-year college experience is not for every young man who graduates high school, said Brian Black, the co-founder of Harmel Academy of the Trades in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“It’s been either you go onto a conventional college, the military, or you don’t,” said Black, the general manager of Grand River Builders, who is an experienced trainer and advocate for the trades.
Seeing a need for post-secondary training, education and formation for young men interested in learning a trade, Black and Ryan Pohl, a journeyman machinist and founder of Praeco Skills, LLC, co-founded Harmel Academy in 2020.
Hosted on the campus of Kuyper College, Harmel students live together in dedicated dormitory floors and receive technical instruction in trades such as computer aided drafting, machine repair, electronics, pneumatics and electrical rigging.
Harmel’s students also learn about the humanities, with a heavy focus on Catholic social teaching. The school is named for Léon Harmel (1829-1915), a French Catholic industrialist who provided his factory workers with just wages, safe working conditions, retirement benefits and health care in a time of extreme worker exploitation. Harmel became a close friend and associate of Pope Leo XIII, who wrote the Rerum Novarum, the 1891 seminal document on Catholic social teaching.
This fall, Harmel Academy will welcome its second class, growing its total enrollment to 20 students. Black spoke with Our Sunday Visitor about the need he sees for a school like Harmel Academy.
Our Sunday Visitor: What makes Harmel Academy unique?
Brian Black: It’s the only place where a young man can live in community while he’s learning his profession, his trade, and growing in holiness in an intentional way. It’s really a school that’s unique in that it’s creating a community for young men to make that transition out of home life and into their own in a complete way.
Our Sunday Visitor: It’s almost surprising that a post-secondary Catholic trades school had not been previously established.
Black: We were surprised, too, when we first started this, that somebody hadn’t done this before. But once we got things rolling, because so many people came to us after we started and said they had similar thoughts or that it was a great idea, that was one of the ways we were confident to move forward. Once we proposed this idea to people, they really saw it as a great idea. We felt that it was odd that nobody had really done this yet.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did you choose Léon Harmel as the school’s patron?
Black: He’s not widely known in the U.S., but he is in France, of course, because he’s a native. He’s one of those historic figures that’s gotten overlooked, unfortunately. He was a radical innovator and a serious Catholic businessman who took seriously the Church’s teaching on social questions and undertook action to actually do something about it rather than go to conferences or talk a lot about it. He’s a patron of action, really. You can read the [Catholic social teaching] documents and talk about them, but you actually have to do something, and that was the part we felt a real attraction to about him.
Our Sunday Visitor: How did the idea for the school begin?
Black: It originated out of a lot of conversations between me and the co-founder about our frustrations with not only finding people to hire in our respective trades — we’re both tradesmen — but also our frustrations that Catholic social teaching wasn’t more widely understood or promoted. Also, as fathers, both of us watched the limited numbers of ways that young men can move out of the house onto their own to become adult men and fathers and husbands; it’s been either you go onto a conventional college, the military, or you don’t. So it was really a frustration from a bunch of things. And Ryan had the idea that those could all get solved in a creative new way with this school.
Our Sunday Visitor: How do you go about then founding a new school from scratch?
Black: It’s really complicated. One of the reasons we were able to get as far as we have was that Ryan and I just knew a lot of people. And when you start asking questions of a lot of people who support you and who have an interest in you succeeding, whether they be a tax accountant, a college professor, a business owner or an educator — we’re blessed with a wide network of experienced friends — you just keep talking and figuring it out. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart. It’s been quite a trip through the jungle. The best way to do it is to just do it and just start asking questions.
Our Sunday Visitor: What is the curriculum like at Harmel?
Black: It’s a two-year program that provides students with all the technical instruction they need to become journeymen in their trade. And it also gets them started on their apprenticeship hours on the job. The core of the curriculum is technical instruction and training. A humanities curriculum is interwoven in our entire program here so that no matter what we’re doing, if we’re talking about welding, we’re still talking about the humanities, and we’re still talking Catholic social teaching, and we’re still talking about living in community. It’s unique in that way. We’re not departmentalized in traditional academic structures. That is a distinctive aspect of this program, that we’re able to implement it that way. Early on, we didn’t have any barriers to that. When you build from scratch, you can do what you want.
Our Sunday Visitor: You founded a school in the midst of a pandemic. Did that complicate things?
Black: Yes, [laughs] it complicated things in every possible way
Our Sunday Visitor: What are the long term goals for Harmel Academy?
Black: To pursue all our goals and activities with excellence; program development, student life, everything. We’re not focused on growth exclusively, but we expect normal organic measured growth. We are intent on developing our community life here as the primary goal of the school so that everything else serves that; the trade curriculum serves it, our spiritual life serves it, everything serves our community life. That keeps us focused on our formation and on the guys having an experience that will build a foundation for the rest of their lives. They can always pick up advanced calculus online, but they’re never gonna have another chance to live in a community for two years with other guys.
Our Sunday Visitor: From what kind of backgrounds do Harmel’s students come from?
Black: They’re coming from all over the country. We have a mix of home schoolers, and students from Catholic high school, public high school, Christian high school. Every background is represented.
Our Sunday Visitor: What has the reception been like from other Catholic educators and institutions?
Black: We’ve been contacted by quite a number of other schools and institutions who are interested in what we’re doing, and we’re in conversation with a few of them about helping them to do something similar. So there is a lot of support from other schools who also see this as a real need and a unique way to solve their problem, so that’s been rewarding to have that affirmation as well. So we’ll see where that leads. Hopefully, over time, we’ll be able to look back and say we helped start some other schools too.
Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.