Program to offer trades certificates for men


Plans are underway for a new men’s Catholic residential trade school.

Set to open in fall 2020, Harmel Academy will offer a two-year associate degree-level certificate meant to lead to a career in machine and systems technology.

Students will live on the campus of Kuyper College to gain the “college experience” and create social networks, something not normally available to vocational students, while working through a hands-on trade curriculum.

The trade curriculum and internships will fully integrate with the hiring needs of local manufacturers, said Brian Black, Harmel Academy president and co-founder, who has been in the construction trades for decades as a tradesman and as general manager at Grand River Builders. Ryan Pohl is the other co-founder and a journeyman CNC machinist and programmer. Pohl also is a certified educator and trades educator.

“A regular conversation I have with other contractors is about the labor shortage and how young men don’t see all the great opportunities in the trades,” Black said. “And it seems that the deeper question that needs to get answered is about why we work, not just how to work.”

The goal is that the school will help young men “grow in all areas of their lives including leadership, collaboration, life skills and character development.”

In the classroom, the students will complete a curriculum that integrates all humanities subjects in one class, rather than separate intensive classes for each subject.

“We're not going to ask them to write five-page papers with footnotes, but they will get the full college experience of being with their peers, talking about great literature, talking about history, talking about philosophy.”

The students will start the first year with a paid apprenticeship with one of the partnering companies. 

“That apprenticeship is managed between those two sites, between the actual collaborating shop’s facility and our campus. That is one program that works back and forth,” Black said.

Black will be the classroom teacher to start. A trade instructor will be hired in the next year. 

Black said ongoing development of the program will be guided by the needs of employers.

“This model is going to serve the students as well as it serves the industry in West Michigan, so it's a win-win on both sides,” he said.

Micron Manufacturing in Grand Rapids has been helping to direct program development by providing input about what skills are needed in incoming employees.

Several other companies are interested in partnering with the academy but have not yet officially joined. Black said he is open to hearing from additional companies that may be interested. 

“The response from the industry has been overwhelmingly positive,” he said.

The first year’s class size will be around 15 students, and the plan is to grow it slowly from there. The next year will probably have about 30 students, Black said.

Black said the program will be offered to men only, and that will not change.

“The co-founder, Ryan Pohl, and I have both had a very strong interest in basically male leadership, the role of men in the world as Catholics, and the unique challenges that presents,” Black said. “It's just where we see ourselves being most effective.”

“This is what Ryan and I both feel really strongly about … and what we think we need in our community for leadership.”

He said he also expects the male-only program to lead to better focus for the students.

Kuyper College is supporting the startup of Harmel Academy through a lease arrangement that provides access to housing, food service and other facilities. The academy currently is moving into dedicated space at Kuyper College.

The school’s development also has been guided by a similar 100-year-old program at Williamson College of the Trades near Philadelphia. 

The academy was named for a Catholic French industrialist of the 19th century.

It was founded in 2017, is registered as a proprietary school with the state of Michigan and has received tax-exempt status from the IRS. It is planning accreditation through the Accrediting Commission of Career Schools and Colleges but will not be accredited for the initial years.

A construction trades program also is in development with a goal for the first class to start in the academy’s third year.

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