STEUBENVILLE, Ohio — Jacob Imam and a friend were talking about the onerous cost of a college education when they stumbled on an idea: to combine training in the skilled trades with Catholic studies.
Formed in early 2019, their vision since has become a school named for St. Joseph the Worker. It will receive its first students in the fall of 2023, offering three tracks, including a course of Catholic studies combined with journeyman-level skills in carpentry, masonry, electrical work, plumbing or HVAC (heating, ventilation and air conditioning). Cost of the six-year program will be $15,000 a year, including tuition and room, for the first three years, and $5,000 a year, including tuition, for the next three.
Imam, who is writing a doctoral thesis on theology and economics at Oxford University, said as he and his friend were seeking a Catholic way of educating students and sending them into the world unencumbered by financial debt, their minds went to the trades, for a number of reasons.
“It’s a financially good idea because apprentices get paid to train, and they get paid quite well. But also, it really is the model Christ gave us. We can’t pass over too quickly the fact that he spent some years of his life at a carpenter’s bench.”
Within weeks of conceiving the idea, Imam began piecing together a business model for the concept, initially working on it on the train to his job in Washington, DC, and then further refining it after he began his doctoral studies. He also started silent fundraising.
“I really appreciated that challenge, and, praise God, we found some very hopeful donors who wanted to partner with us in this adventure,” he said. “We were hoping to raise $2.5 million and have raised $3 million so far. This gets us open and sustainable.”
Imam said the school is starting with a spartan model, following the lead of others that have begun humbly in functional space and later grew their campuses.
After the decision was made to locate in Steubenville, Ohio, which is also home to Franciscan University, Imam contacted Mike Sullivan, a local general contractor whose background reflects something of what the school is trying to achieve for its students. Not only is Sullivan familiar with the construction trades because of his business, he holds a master’s degree in theology and is a former president of Catholics United for the Faith.
Sullivan, who since had been named president of the school, said he warmed to Imam’s idea immediately, especially because he knows well the need for skilled tradesmen.
“We have wonderful tradesmen here locally,” he said, “but I have had a hard time finding enough to fill the need. I’ve lamented for years that there are not enough Catholic craftsmen and also the lack of focus on craftsmanship and not just a way to make money.”
Students at the school will be taught the trades by master craftsmen and small business owners who also possess an understanding and love of the liberal arts, said Alex Renn, vice president of operations.
Sullivan, who studied theology and the classics as an undergraduate at Assumption College in Worcester, Massachusetts, said, “[This school] would have been perfect for me because I was interested in theology but also was interested in working with my hands.”
For that reason, he said, he has always worked in the trades on the side. While going to Assumption, for example, he was employed by a contractor and a landscape architect, and later he started his own construction business.
The new school will be in the downtown area of Steubenville away from Franciscan University’s hilltop campus. Franciscan also began in Steubenville’s downtown, in 1946, as the College of Steubenville, opening its current campus in 1961.
Imam said both the university and the new school are mutually supportive of one another’s missions and are discussing ways to cooperate.
Steubenville was chosen, he said, because of its rich Catholic identity and history as an industrial city that suffered when the mills and mines closed in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“What we are hoping to do is revive our Rust Belt town,” Imam said. “There’s an endless amount of work for students to do there … dealing with old buildings and trying to expand upon them in ways that are beautiful and in keeping with the times.”
The school’s workshop and offices will be located in a 20,000-square-foot former print shop that closed in December 2019. Academic classes will initially be conducted in rented space in a former parish school until a permanent site can be acquired.
Response to the new school has been overwhelmingly enthusiastic. Sullivan said, “We’re getting phone calls from construction companies, parents and other schools that want to talk about cooperating.”
Karissa Prigge, a school counselor at Chesterton Academy of St. Mary’s in Mechanicsville, Maryland, contacted the new school as soon as she learned about it in June.
“I have some students interested in possibly going into the trades, and I’ve also heard from parents who are not so sure that’s an option they want their children to take,” she said. “When I heard about the school, I thought, ‘This could be a very good happy medium.’ … It’s a way for students to be on a path for both options and see which one they feel called to continue.”
Prigge said currently her students have the choice of going to college or into the trades, joining the military, entering consecrated life or taking a gap year. Those who are interested in the trades, she said, are very concerned about the state of the US economy and are asking whether they will have jobs when they finish college.
Additionally, she said, “They see that everybody looks up to the plumber when everything goes wrong in their house. They feel as if this is a place where they will have a future and not a guessing game.”
Rachel Greszler, senior research fellow with the Heritage Foundation, said with the country in the midst of an abrupt labor shortage, driven in a large part by a decline in employment and educational enrollment among young people, more affordable and effective education options are needed. Likewise, she added, employers need people who are better equipped for the workforce and the evolving nature of work.
The programs being offered by the Steubenville school, she said, will offer a promising way for students to gain an education and learn a trade without the high cost of traditional four-year undergraduate degrees.
“Over the past three decades, tuition and fees at in-state colleges and universities nearly tripled in real terms, but those higher costs haven’t produced a similar gain in value for students because much of the spending has gone towards the administrative state of higher education, instead of education itself,” noted Greszler. “Only 4 of 10 full-time employees at university universities and fewer than 3-in-10 employees at graduate universities are educational staff. st. Joseph’s student-centric model that’s focused on education and not bureaucracy will be incredibly important to its potential success.”
Students who enroll in the school will begin with a gap-year program in which they will learn the basics of the five trades and study the fundamentals of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Upon completion of that year, they will have the opportunity to transition into one of two programs: a three-year Catholic studies track that will incorporate the basics of learning all five trades or a six-year “Craftsman Track” that includes three years of Catholic studies and three years of apprenticeship training towards a journeyman’s license in a trade. For those who choose to transition into one of the other two programs, the gap-year program constitutes the first year.
The Craftsman Track includes shop training and focused exposure to the various trades, all conducted in Steubenville. In the fourth year, students choose one trade and then work for three years under a journeyman in it. Plans are to have students complete that training in cities where they eventually want to settle.
While in Steubenville, students will live in houses owned by the school, but they will be responsible for the upkeep, utilities and other costs as a means of preparing them for home ownership.
The school, which is currently seeking approval from the state of Ohio Department of Higher Education, hopes to enroll an inaugural class of 30 students by the fall of 2023. Within a month of the announcement of its opening, 13 completed applications had been received and another 69 were in process. While state approval is pending, however, the school cannot be called a “college” nor can it promise to grant degrees.
Sullivan said he has been overwhelmed by the interest the school has generated. Among the calls he has received have been from those who want to start Catholic trade schools in other states. Currently, he said, he knows of one other such school — Harmel Academy of the Trades, a residential, Catholic, post-secondary trade school for men in Grand Rapids, Michigan. In addition, Kateri College of the Liberal and Practical Arts, which will unite a liberal arts education with a vocational trade, plans to admit its first class of men and women in 2024 in Gallup, New Mexico.
“I think it’s a movement of the Holy Spirit,” Sullivan said. “… Through history there has always been a certain respect or prestige associated with being a fine craftsman. In the last century, there was a tendency to emphasize the intellectual life and intellectual-focused fields and work environments. Therefore, there was a cultural neglect of the importance and dignity of the trades. I think the skilled trades are a place where a human person can find fulfillment through a contemplative life while working with their hands or building beautiful things that help build up the culture with truth, beauty and goodness.”
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