Kay S. Hymowitz joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss Pennsylvania’s Williamson College of the Trades, a three-year school for young men offering a debt-free path to high-paying work—and the life skills to help them get there.

“Trade schools” have long had a stigma in American culture, but Williamson is no ordinary trade school: students wake up early to the sound of reveille and attend academic classes in coats and ties. As Hymowitz writes in City Journal’s autumn issue, “With its old-timey rituals, rigorous scheduling, and immersive culture, Williamson has a military-school feel.” But according to the students she interviewed, the prospect of a good-paying career makes the strict rules more than worth it.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on the show today is Kay Hymowitz. Kay is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a longtime contributing editor at City Journal. Her latest piece in the magazine, “Trading Up” looks at a remarkable post-secondary trade school called Williamson College of the Trades. Located 20 miles outside Philadelphia. The school enrolling around 300 students. All low income boys, provides a debt free path to good jobs for kids who don't want to go the traditional four year university route. Though it's a small institution, a number of Williamson's alumni have graduated into the big time from modest beginnings. Kay Hymowitz had the opportunity to visit the school earlier this year and she was impressed with the students to say the least. You can find the full essay “Trading Up” on our website and we'll link to it in the description. That's it for the introduction. We'll take a quick break and be back with Kay Hymowitz.

Brian Anderson: Hello again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me in the studio is Kay Hymowitz. You can follow her on Twitter @KayHymowitz. Kay's essay for the autumn issue of City Journal called “Trading Up” and it's about Pennsylvania's Williamson College of the Trades, which is not too far from Philadelphia. You can find the story in the magazine itself or on the City Journal website. Kay, thanks very much for joining us.

Kay Hymowitz: My pleasure.

Brian Anderson: Trade schools have long had a stigma around them, but Williamson College is a well established trade school and a remarkably successful one. So maybe we can talk first just about the basics of the school. What kind of students go there, how much does it cost, what the academic outcomes look like, what kind of jobs the students get? So let's start with that. Just to introduce listeners to this very unique institution.

Kay Hymowitz: So the Williamson College of the Trades has a been around since 1888 if we can imagine. And it looks when you, when you go there, it looks more like an Ivy league school. It's got a beautifully maintained old Victorian buildings and it was set up to deal with, to try to educate what the founder Isaiah Williamson called or people at the time called, corner boys. And that was a young men, or late adolescents who were hanging around the streets. A lot of them were orphans and he wanted to give them a trade, something that they could do, that would give them productive work and make them productive members of society. And it was quite successful. And it remains that way today. We don't call the boys that are at Williamson corner boys and most of them are not orphans, but they do tend to come from pretty depressed homes. Low-income obviously. Because this is a scholarship school that is, everybody is there. Getting room and board by the way for free, which is just an enormous boon to a young person like that. And they study one of six trades. Let's see if I can remember all of them. It's masonry, machine trades. There's power. The power plant, which is where they students actually learn to handle a power plant by managing the power plant on the campus. There's horticulture and painting and which involves much more than painting, plastering and all of that sort of thing.

Brian Anderson: So, sort of house work. That kind of thing.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah, yeah. I'm leaving one out but maybe it'll come to me.

Brian Anderson: But all very practical.

Kay Hymowitz: Extremely practical and still very useful and necessary even in this very advanced economy. And one of the things I was struck by when I went to Williamson was that with all the talk about technology and automation and AI and all of that, these were for the most part occupations that are still going to be needed even if not to the same extent.

Even if there are a lots of new machines helping these people who are working in these trades and that they're very satisfying to the young man. And we can talk about the fact that this is an all boys school.

Brian Anderson: And it's a three year institution.

Kay Hymowitz: It's a three year institution. Extremely satisfying. And what the school really self-consciously tries to instill in these boys is a sense that they are not losers because these were always the back row boys.

Brian Anderson: Kinds, in other words who aren't really interested in going to a four year college.

Kay Hymowitz: That's right.

Brian Anderson: Or not suited to go to four year college.

Kay Hymowitz: That's right. And they were not that interested in book learning. They had to graduate high school obviously to get into the school but they didn't see themselves in a college environment. They found out about Williamson through various means. Mostly word of mouth. The school does not have enough money to do a tremendous amount of outreach. But...

Brian Anderson: So, most of the kids are from Pennsylvania?

Kay Hymowitz: Most of them are from the Philadelphia area. There are some from Baltimore and, well most of them, yes, most of them from Philadelphia area. The broader metropolitan area. And like I said, it's three years and the reason they want to make it three years, because most trade schools and most associates degrees in general are two years. But Isaiah Williamson, had a vision of what he was going to do for his students was that went beyond just the trade, just the technical abilities that the school teaches, but also to try to encourage a set of character qualities that would allow them to really succeed. And a lot of these kids from Williamson, they don't just go on to become bricklayers that go on to make their own companies. And there are amazing success stories of people who become CEOs of major energy companies and the likes. So...

Brian Anderson: So what... We'll get to that, it's extremely interesting. What is the rough percentage of students who do graduate and how many of them get jobs?

Kay Hymowitz: So 74% of the students graduate now compare that to what happens to low income kids who go to college. It's a much, much lower and even, it's quite a bit lower for people who on to regular associates degrees. So it's, they do extremely well. They, 74% of them graduate and 98% of those graduates go immediately to a job. And they have over the three years they've been there, they've had opportunities to do internships that the teachers and administrators school are quite well connected and people need these workers.

Brian Anderson: Yeah, and some of the successful really successful kids who go on to have their own companies or work and in higher levels at different kinds of companies. They've come back to the school. You mentioned.

Kay Hymowitz: They do. The alumni stay very, very involved. I know that they...

Brian Anderson: With fundraising.

Kay Hymowitz: With fundraising, and those who do very well tend to be very active. One of the, the head of the board, actually, Bill Bonenburger told me that he actually went on a service trip because these kids do lot of service work. A service trip to, I think it was the Dominican Republic in his case, they, a bunch of kids, probably about 10 or 12 kids are sent every year to a place then that's been damaged either by an earthquake or a hurricane and they go and they do service work there and some of the donors go too. It's the spirit of the place.

Brian Anderson: Well speaking of that, Williamson has a, what you might call an old fashioned, very old fashioned approach to discipline and that goes well beyond requiring the students to wear suits and ties or a suit jackets and ties outside of shop class or whatever. A practical study they're involved with, but when they're in classrooms they do have to dress up. But talk a bit about the discipline approach to the students and the whole school environment.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. I think an outsider to this day and age coming to Williamson would think they were in a, some kind of military environment in some ways. The kids are up early, they get up to Reveille, they raise an American flag and a Williamson flag in the courtyard and then they all go to a chapel and then breakfast. And the chapel's non-denomination though there it is... The school does openly support the idea that faith is a very useful or an important part of a good man's life. And they then have a routine and they're, they're very busy from seven in the morning till ten o'clock at night when they are due back in their rooms. In the dorms. They are as you say, always in a jackets and ties except when they're actually in shop.

When they can, then they can dress more like a working guy. And they are also expected to have a certain kind of bearing. I mean in addition to all of the shops and shop related courses they take, they also take speech, which I found very interesting because the students speak very well. And every kid I met shakes your hands, looks you straight in the eye describes the program very well. They exude a kind of confidence and that is quite deliberately instilled in these boys by the school. It's not a bragging kind of confidence. It's just a self assurance that they have a skill, they know how to do it and they know where they're going and they're confident based on these numbers that I mentioned earlier that they will find a career and be a functioning productive person in this economy. And that they will, they have a mission, a vision of their lives that I think a lot of kids coming from their surroundings do not have.

Brian Anderson: Well you talked to a number of students and you think about social media and the kind of reality that the, the students of Williamson might be able to look at at going on and other campuses where kids are getting drunk and partying all the time and what is their view of that? Because the school is, Williamson is pretty strict on things like drinking and...

Kay Hymowitz: Yes, I should have mentioned that. Exactly. Yes. You absolutely cannot drink on campus and because you have to be there from all day long except weekends, that means that you're not drinking. You're really not. And of course marijuana is also prohibited. I think a lot, this is a self selected group. I think there are some young men who take, who hear this and say forget about it. And indeed the guys at Williamson now, in the days of social media go online and see pictures of their friends with beer, beer glasses raised high, having a ball, what looks like a ball. And it's tough. It really takes a certain kind of kid with a self-determined, very self-determined, very, very deliberate and conscientious. So I don't want to tell you that this would work for everybody, although they do get some kids from extremely poor poverty stricken...

Brian Anderson: And are these kids a minority kids or are they mostly white Pennsylvania kids?

Kay Hymowitz: They're mostly white. It's 30% minority. I spoke to a few minority kids. Again, I found the kids that I met and got to talk to for any length of time showed a certain kind of clarity about themselves that I think is not for every kid. On the other hand, I tell the story of one kid who was homeless. A Hispanic kid who was homeless, so living on the streets for a little while and in various foster homes and somehow made his way to Williamson. He's doing great. He has a gift for carpentry and he is working for a construction company in Philadelphia and making a good salary.

Brian Anderson: That raises the question, I mentioned earlier that trade schools have a kind of stigma about them. So maybe address that a little bit. Why do they have a stigma? And as a second part of that question, could Williamson be a model that would be replicated elsewhere and maybe start removing that stigma?

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. Well, the stigma that I think has been, grown more and more over the decades as we've put much more emphasis on college. On college going.

Brian Anderson: The traditional four year.

Kay Hymowitz: Yeah. And remember the government has gotten behind the college for everyone idea. I think that was a bad idea from the beginning. There are kids who really are just not cut out for college. And it had the effect of making all of those kids feel like losers and to imagine there was nothing there for them and it feel looked down on. That is a huge issue for these kids. As I said, some people call them the back row kids who just had found nothing to stir them. So I think, I'm not sure about what we should be doing in high school in terms of vocational education, but I know these, we can do trade schools that deserve a great deal more respect and in which the kids can feel not only good about themselves, but really find a good life.

Brian Anderson: Have a sense of the future and possibilities.

Kay Hymowitz: Exactly. Exactly. And I think that a lot of their classmates are kids who are like them are going on to minimum wage jobs are barely above that and in very uncertain situations.

Brian Anderson: And sometimes with debt that can't pay back.

Kay Hymowitz: Well, I didn't. Yes, that is such an important issue here. I can't tell you... When the kids see the pictures from Penn State of their friends at frat parties and the like. That's one of the things they tell themselves. I won't have any debt. And their friends are extremely jealous of that.

Brian Anderson: Yes. Well thanks Kay. Don't forget to checkout Kay's essay. It's in the latest City Journal. The piece is called “Trading Up” about Williamson College of the Trades, just outside of Philadelphia. How far is it from Philly?

Kay Hymowitz: It's about 20 miles outside of Philly in an area called Media, which is a kind of working class area that's also got some farmland actually.

Brian Anderson: Well you can find this essay on our website. It's in our latest issue. We'll link to it in the description and you can follow Kay as I mentioned earlier on Twitter @KayHymowitz. She's a regular tweeter. You can also find city journal on Twitter @CityJournal. And you can email us at podcast@city-journal.org and always, if you've liked what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a rating on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thanks Kay very much for joining us.

Kay Hymowitz: Thank you.

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