There is growing interest in the trades for many families around the country, according to the leaders of postsecondary Catholic trade institutions, and it comes amid major skilled-labor shortages in the U.S.
According to the 2023 Career Advancement in Manufacturing Report by Xometry, 82% of manufacturing companies are experiencing a labor shortage. In February, the Associated Builders and Contractors said that the construction industry had a shortage of half a million laborers.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the demand for electricians is expected to grow faster than the demand for all occupations from 2022 to 2032 to make up for workers leaving the field to retire or transferring to a different occupation.
Leaders of new Catholic trade schools across the U.S. say they are offering a new path for students who don’t want to take on crippling debt from traditional four-year colleges by training them in a skill, cultivating their faith, and doing it all affordably.
CNA spoke to four of these schools about their mission and goals.
Santiago Trade School
Producing “excellent Christian tradesmen” is the mission of Santiago Trade School in the rural part of Orange County, California.
The two-year school, for men only, operates under the legal auspices of Santiago Retreat Center, a nonprofit organization offering retreats to Catholics that sits on 500 acres of land.
The school, which had its inaugural class of five students in September, offers training in several different trades including general construction, mechanical technology, and agricultural management.
Students will be focusing on what it takes to build a house, studying the use of heavy machinery, and spending time on a 300-acre farm and ranch that has cattle, bison, horses, goats, chickens, sheep, and several other animals, Mark McElrath, executive director of Santiago Retreat Center, told CNA in December.
Students at the school live and pray in community with a rigorous schedule each day. The day begins at 6:30 a.m. in the chapel, where the students pray the Psalms together. Breakfast is at 7 a.m. and work begins about an hour later.
The students attend Mass at 11:30, which is followed by lunch. Then at 2 p.m., the students engage in study, either taking online courses on the trades or reading theological works like those of Venerable Fulton J. Sheen or St. John Henry Newman.
Dinner is at 5 p.m. followed by another prayer session at 7 p.m. and recreation time at 8 p.m. Lights are out at 11 p.m.
The school is led by five staff members, including tradesmen and a Catholic priest as a chaplain, Father Glenn Baaten of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter.
Tuition is set at $28,000 a semester, similar to in-state tuition at many public colleges.
However, at Santiago, students have the opportunity to participate in a work-study program at Santiago Retreat Center. Most students should be able to graduate debt-free if they take part in the program, McElrath said.
”So at the end of two years, you’ll know how to build a house, why we build a house, how to manage what goes on in the house. You should have little to no debt, and you should be extremely employable,” McElrath said.
St. Joseph the Worker
The College of St. Joseph the Worker in Steubenville, Ohio, is another Catholic institution teaching the trades, but it’s not actually a “trade school,” according to Jacob Imam, the school’s founder and vice president of finance.
Instead, the institution, which opens in 2024, is a trade college, offering a six-year program where students will earn a bachelor’s degree in Catholic studies and their journeyman’s status in a specific trade.
A journeyman is someone who has completed an apprenticeship program or is otherwise fully qualified to offer their trades services without supervision.
The coed college, which offers training in carpentry, HVAC, plumbing, and electrical, costs $15,000 a year for the first three years and $5,000 for the final two.
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But, like Santiago Trade School, the college’s financial model is set up so that students are not drowning in debt, as is the case for many university students graduating in traditional four-year institutions today.
“One of the great things about the trades is that you get paid to train in them,” Imam said. “So, that offsets the insidious financial state that many students find themselves being up to their eyeballs in debt rather than graduating financially net positive, which is our hope for all of our students.”
In the first three years, students will live in downtown Steubenville on campus as they start to explore the trades, begin liberal arts studies, and get paid to work as laborers and apprentices.
Beginning in year 4, students are then sent back to their home state or a state they wish to be certified in and continue to train under a tradesman in the school’s network while taking online classes.
The college plans to accept 30 students for its first year in fall 2024 and expects to have hundreds of applications from prospective students. The application deadline is Feb. 5.
Now in its fourth year of operation, Harmel Academy of the Trades in Grand Rapids, Michigan, has a vision to “form men and to apprentice them to Jesus Christ,” according to David Michael Phelps, the school’s president.
The all-male academy aims to form Christian men through a humanities curriculum consisting of philosophy, theology, history, literature, and film, along with a robust education in the trades.
The men who attend the two-year academy live on campus and pray in community with their classmates, such as reciting the Divine Office three times a day with one another.
The school has a “foundations year” for first-year students, which entails the exploration of a variety of different trades. The goal of the foundations year is to help young men discern their path for a career.
Some end up deciding to pursue a trade the school doesn’t offer. Others decide to pursue a traditional four-year college. Certain students make the decision to stay at Harmel and join an apprenticeship track for either machinists or machine builders.
The academy is planning to offer new tracks soon, such as welding and automotive.
The school has a goal to make attendance easily affordable for students. Students will work when they are at school, and their income can go “a very long way” in paying for tuition if they work hard and live moderately, Phelps said.
The school also offers certain scholarships and a “Solidarity Fund,” which “allows for the supplementation of that man’s income while he’s here,” Phelps said.
The academy has already graduated two cohorts of students. Its first class consisted of six students and its most recent cohort included 23 students.
Phelps said the feedback from graduated students and employers has been positive.
“What we find with our employers is usually almost always a phone call that goes something like this: ‘Hey, this guy you sent over here is excellent. Can I have five more of them?’” he said.
“The guys are men of skill and character, but the employers don’t always understand that it’s because they understand themselves as working for Our Lord first,” he said.
With a goal to open its doors by fall 2025, Kateri College in Gallup, New Mexico, plans to offer students a four-year liberal arts bachelor’s degree program and certification in a specific trade.
The first trades the college will offer are carpentry and construction, with a vision to add welding, electrical, and diesel mechanics to follow.
John Freeh, one of the college’s co-founders, told CNA that the college is in response to the “unnatural divorce” between the intellectual life and the life of manual work.
“Our thought is that there are virtues and qualities particular to those two realms of life, the intellectual and the manual, which complement each other and lead to a fullness of humanity. So I think there’s good reason for trying to affect a new marriage between them,” he said.
Freeh said the goal is for students to avoid large debt by the school’s partnerships with corporations and benefactors to reduce tuition.
He also said that students will have the ability to get paid to work in the trades during the school year and the summers under skilled craftsmen, which will add to their training and their ability to pay tuition.
Freeh also mentioned that there is a sizable Native American population in New Mexico, which the school has been conducting outreach to for prospective students. He added that there are a lot of “untapped” scholarship funds available for Native American students that will help the cost of tuition for them.
Kateri College hopes to accept 30-40 men and women for its freshman cohort in the fall of 2025.
“It’s become clear that this idea is germinating elsewhere,” Freeh said of the Catholic trade schools coming onto the scene. “So we think it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit.”
Joseph Bukuras is a journalist at the Catholic News Agency. Joe has prior experience working in state and federal government, in non-profits, and Catholic education. He has contributed to an array of publications and his reporting has been cited by leading news sources, including the New York Times and the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the Catholic University of America. He is based out of the Boston area.
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