The Jesuit Trade

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On Tuesday September 6, ITT Technical Institute announced that it was shutting down. The school offered classes in web design, computer building, nursing technicians, and many other hands-on jobs. Its closing leaves over 35,000 students with millions in debt.

The closure of ITT Tech forced me to ask what we as Jesuits do for workers. I have to wonder, “What have the Jesuits actually done for labor lately? What of our historic ties to slavery and slave labor? Our efforts to support working families?”

Throughout its American history, the Jesuits have played a widely varying role in labor. On the one hand, in the early years, we owned slaves and sold them to keep colleges open. Georgetown and others are finally coming to terms with that grave injustice and trying to amend their wrongs. On the other hand, in the early 1900s, Jesuits supported labor organizing and workers rights. We ran schools to organize machinists and were the first to use radio to spread the message of worker’s rights.

Today, we continue to have programs that support the working class. Homeboy Industries provides job training to high-risk, formerly-gang involved men and women. The Cristo Rey Network teaches underrepresented urban high school students necessary workplace skills.

Yet among the American Society of Jesus, I sense a lingering stigma – sure the working class is important, but going to college is more important.

When looking at who, where, and why Jesuits educate, a four-year college education emerges as the deliberate trajectory. Cristo Rey schools are designed to help students gain job skills but their immediate goal is enrollment in four-year degree programs. Even the newest Jesuit education endeavor is designed to help students transition for a four-year program. It is called Arrupe College, and it opened last year as a part of Loyola University Chicago. The school aims to help first-time college families adjust into full-time bachelor’s programs. Despite the emphasis on serving low-income families, the drive is still toward four-year degrees.

But what of those students who either by choice or background do not move onto a bachelor degree? Are the Jesuits failing those people and communities? The weekly earnings of a person with a 4-year degree are about $500 greater. But is a Jesuit education simply about earnings? Jesuit education implicitly supports the notion that a four-year degree is the one path to a successful life. This notion degrades workers and those who aspire to be workers, telling them that they are less valuable to a community. Furthermore, when Jesuits say we work in colleges so we can educate future leaders, we are telling workers that they have no place in leadership. We have frankly forgotten the multiple uses of  the word “vocation.”

But what if we added a new route?

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Though for-profit, ITT Tech and similar schools fill a gap in the US education system. Skilled jobs are vital and are beginning to run short of workers. In growing cities like Sioux Falls, SD, plumbers are retiring, but young ones are not joining the ranks. Residents in Bend, OR wait days for a plumber to come to fix broken showers. The American Welding Society says welders average 55 years old – many will soon retire and leave a massive skills gap.

A report found that in Philadelphia, 11,000 high school students wanted to pursue career and technical training, despite only 2,500 open slots. In California, 75% of students will not attend a 4-year college, but high schools are cutting shop classes. In Massachusetts, over 4,600 students are waiting to enter technical skills programs. The jobs are needed and there are students who are interested. So what’s missing? Places to train them.

At Marquette University High School where I work, students have approached me with similar questions. Recently, a student asked if I would ever consider teaching woodworking, because he would have loved the opportunity to learn a trade. He fears that other students are missing the same chances because of the stigma associated with working-class jobs.

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What if instead of demanding that students at schools in the Cristo Rey Network work white-collar jobs, we offered the opportunity for training in good-paying skilled trades? What if in addition to our four-year degree programs, the Jesuits opened colleges that taught HVAC, plumbing, electrical, welding, and woodworking? Rather than starting from scratch, perhaps these could be programs integrated into our present schools.

Students could learn excellent technical skills, along with the staples of Jesuit-education such as growing in their faith and learning how to better serve the community. With many Jesuit colleges geographically located in poor and underserved communities, these universities could strengthen their commitment to the local community. Perhaps, like Cristo Rey schools, student-workers would use their pay to help cover the cost of school. Students could learn without being saddled by the thousands of dollars of debt brought on by for-profit education. Indeed, this is an opportunity for the Jesuits to again be educational innovators.
The social teaching of the Catholic Church lauds work as a beautiful and wonderful gift from God. But in my experience, the last thirty years of American Catholicism have taught me that only college-educated work is a gift. By practice, skilled and unskilled labor alike are at best forgotten, at worst degraded. We hardly treat either the workers or the work itself with the absolute dignity it deserves. We can do better. With trade schools, Jesuits can both affirm that dignity and innovate new ways of celebrating labor.

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Cover image courtesy FlickrCC user astrid westvang.

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