News & Commentary

New Catholic Trade Schools Prepare Careers and Spiritual Vocations

Mike Sullivan, president of the College of St. Joseph the Worker in Steubenville, Ohio, is pictured in an undated photo explaining the components of a standard furnace to a student. New Catholic schools across the U.S are part of a growing trend for career-focused education in fields such as construction, carpentry, and HVAC, while integrating spiritual growth into vocational training. (OSV News photo/courtesy College of St. Joseph the Worker)

(OSV News) — Construction and architecture. Carpentry and HVAC. Machine and systems technology. All career fields with robust hiring futures — and all career fields young Catholics can pursue in a Christ-centered education environment, thanks to the emerging Catholic trade schools forming students not just for a vocational career, but a spiritual vocation.

“We were blessed back in 1955 to get the support of the Los Angeles Archdiocese to invest into building the school into the form that it is still today,” said Jeff Krynen, principal of Don Bosco Technical Institute, also known as Bosco Tech, in Rosemead, California. “And one of the biggest parts of that investment is that we are blessed with over 125,000 square feet of lab space.”

Pupils at Bosco Tech — which goes co-ed in 2026 — choose from six rigorous, college prep engineering study areas, including architecture and construction; biological, medical and environmental technology; computer science and electrical engineering; integrated design, engineering and art; material science, engineering and technology; and media arts and technology — all of which require hands-on lab coursework.

“Students spend 25% of every school day in one of these science, technology or engineering programs,” Krynen, a Bosco Tech alumnus, said.

The Los Angeles Archdiocese has dozens of Catholic high schools, but the mission of Bosco Tech remains unique — both in the archdiocese and the nation.

“It’s always been our goal — from day one — to cultivate engineers and STEM professionals,” emphasized Krynen. “Our students are taking about 30-40% more coursework than our counterparts in the public high school system. So it’s not an easy school.”

With 340 students — 72% receive some level of financial aid — Bosco Tech boasts a college acceptance rate approaching 100%.

The Salesian-run school also is concerned with students’ spiritual life — just as St. John Bosco, founder of the Salesians of Don Bosco, was concerned with both the education and the souls of the young Catholics he shepherded in Turin, Italy.

The four-year theology program is itself a discipleship pathway: the first year covers who Jesus is and his revelation in Scripture; the second covers Jesus’ mission; the third covers life in Jesus and the sacraments; the fourth covers living as a disciple of Jesus and responding to his call.

“The faith education is absolutely critical,” Krynen said. “Our goal is still, number one, to get our students into heaven — and number two, to get them into college.”

At the College of St. Joseph the Worker in Steubenville, Ohio — which welcomes its inaugural class of 30 in the fall of 2024 — students will choose from four career tracks: carpentry, HVAC, plumbing and electrical. Scholars also will have access to daily Mass, regular confession for the sacrament of reconciliation and perpetual Eucharistic adoration.

“Today, the bar for skilled trades has been set at an all-time low, to the point where quality tradesmen can’t find solid workers who show up on time and are ready to give their best effort,” said Mike Sullivan, St. Joseph the Worker’s president. Sullivan also owns a local construction business and has directed multiple Catholic apostolates, including Emmaus Road Publishing.

“From a practical perspective, the number of graduates we’ll be able to supply in the short-term will be a drop in the bucket of the quantity problem; however, the other aspect we need to consider in the trades is the quality problem,” Sullivan told OSV News. “Currently, we’re losing three experienced tradesmen for every one that enters the field. That’s a lot of knowledge and leadership being lost. Over the long-term we believe our students will help fill this quality void.”

Approached by his friend Jacob Imam — who also serves as St. Joseph’s vice president of finance — with the proposal of starting a Catholic trade college, Sullivan said he “was immediately on board with the idea.”

The college’s concept, Sullivan explained, “harkens back to the medieval monasteries, where the chapel, the fields (or workshop), and the library were interconnected in a harmonious spiritual formation and personal development of students.”

After six years of study, students will be at or near journeyman status in a skilled trade, and have earned a bachelor of arts in Catholic studies — an integrated degree designed to prepare both head and hands with a grounding in a Catholic intellectual tradition.

“No other institution that we’ve encountered can claim the same,” Sullivan said, “but make no mistake — I fully expect that there will be other Catholic trade colleges and trade schools emerging because the need is so great.”

“The very university system which grew out of the Catholic monastic tradition, has become secularized and lost its mooring,” Sullivan said. “But it’s not time to abandon it; it’s time to reclaim it. And that’s just what we aim to do with the College of St. Joseph the Worker.”

Harmel Academy of the Trades in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was, Sullivan said, one of the campuses visited when he and Imam were laying out the plans for the College of St. Joseph the Worker. Like that school, the idea began with a 2015 conversation between two friends — founders Ryan Pohl and Brian Black.

Pohl, a machinist and shop teacher, and Black, a historic building renovator, both pondered a school to provide spiritual formation in the skilled trades, said David Michael Phelps, president of Harmel Academy.

“Ryan’s wife for example, is a nurse, who went to (Franciscan University of) Steubenville,” Phelps said. “But no such option existed for folks in the skilled trades, as far as they could tell. They just felt after having that conversation — for years, really — that they were being called to do something like that.”

Harmel Academy got its license to open its doors March 12, 2020. The next day, the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down Michigan. Nevertheless, they persevered and welcomed their first group of students that fall.

Four years later, Harmel Academy has 21 students and 16 graduates. Programs focus on machine and systems technology, paired with humanities courses and a program teaching “the fundamentals of skilled work and spiritual maturity.”

“We take a lot of our cues from the monastic tradition,” Phelps explained. “It’s the reintegration of prayer and work in a community of prayer and work and study, and trying to help men live into — and incubate in — a particular way of life that reintegrates prayer and work in the context of a community of formation.”

That emphasis, Phelps stresses, is critical in contemporary society.

Citing the 2016 study “Men Without Work” — written by political economist Nicholas Eberstadt of the American Enterprise Institute — Phelps said: “If you have one in nine men — 11% of men — who don’t even feel the need to even pursue work, that’s not primarily an economic problem. And it’s not even a problem of whether or not there’s enough training or education. …That’s a spiritual problem.”

That problem, Phelps said, has roots in a thoroughly human place of needed formation: the soul.

“Until we get a proper understanding of what work is — and what it has to do with the formation of the human soul — these problems simply will not go away,” Phelps said.

Which is why students are carefully selected.

“What we ask of the men who come here are not men who are simply just interested in going to school,” said Phelps. “What we ask here are men who are willing to dedicate a season of their life to learn what it means to apprentice themselves to Jesus Christ.”

In Houston, the ribbon was cut in mid-February for St. Peter Catholic, a career and technical high school in the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.

At the ceremony, St. Peter’s principal Marc Martinez recalled how Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo mentioned the need “to have a different kind of school that meets the needs of students that are not college bound.’” Exploration of that need continued with Debra Haney, the outgoing archdiocesan superintendent of Catholic schools.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” Martinez said, “because I had worked with several students, trying to get them to graduate — knowing that perhaps college is not in their future, but there had been no other options.”

“So that’s what St. Peter Catholic does,” he said, “it provides students an alternative or an option to college preparatory.”

Students pursue paths in construction, business, education and information technology. Graduates gain a foundation — once certified — for jobs immediately upon graduation or college study.

St. Peter Catholic has launched with 10 students taught by two full-time faculty and a part-time math teacher and has aspirations to grow over time to a student body of 200. A cybersecurity certification partnership with the University of St. Thomas, the only Catholic university in Houston, also is under consideration.

Martinez said — as did Phelps at Harmel Academy — that interest in this educational model is strong.

“I have met with probably a dozen either schools or superintendents at other Catholic dioceses throughout the nation, wanting to know how we got started,” Martinez noted, listing numerous states.

Martinez hopes that, by sharing his expertise, he can plant educational seeds for the future.

“I had conversations with them about here’s why and how we got started,” Martinez said, “just kind of helping them develop a way that they could bring something like this to their community as well.”

By Kimberley Heatherington | OSV News