The ultimate graduation gift

Baldwin County students excel in Austal USA internship program


On graduation night, E’myis Craig’s friends invited him to hit the town and celebrate.

The newly minted Daphne High alum turned them down. Instead, he headed home to bed.

Just a few hours later, at 3 a.m., he was awake and headed to the shipyard in Mobile to help craft America’s next warrior, the USS Canberra (LCS 30), out of aluminum and fire.

“I’m coming in to make money. They’re going out to have fun. I have dreams,” Craig said. “I saw an opportunity and I took it.”

Craig and more than three dozen students from Baldwin and Mobile counties spent the last semester of their senior year as part of Austal USA’s Youth Apprenticeship Program.

The highly competitive program culls students from area high schools who want to learn how to take the skills they’ve picked up either at home or in class and parlay them into a job where they can expand and learn more. In this case, the students are not only working in the real world, and being paid, they are piecing together a battleship, working side by side with career shipbuilders.

Craig can be found on the side of the two-story hulk of a haul, adding pieces to the giant. When he finishes, welders follow behind and make the change permanent.

“Things are slow and steady, they are definitely not babying me,” Craig said.   

One level below, 2020 Robertsdale High graduate Blake Benson’s silhouette can be seen against the harsh, white daylight streaming into the cavernous bays that house the ships as they rise to life.

He has spent most of his youth on the farm, working with various tools. The transition to shipbuilding was natural, he said.

“I love it,” he said. “I like working with my hands.”

A tough interview process at the shipyard narrowed the field to the students who not only had some hands-on knowledge, but also to those who were committed to working long days in the heat.

“It’s a tough interview process and very intense to make sure we had high quality students who were committed,” said Napoleon Bracy, Jr, Manager, Diversity, Inclusion & Affirmative Action.  “A lot of these kids have done some carpentry work or been on a farm or taken a welding class, they have some level of a foundation so they are not starting from zero.”

The program has proven to be so successful that Bracy said parents of students who turned down an offer to join the program are now calling to find a way back in. Many of those who rose to the challenge, and gave up their spring break and Mardi Gras holiday, were rewarded.

Two-thirds of the program’s students, including Craig, Benson and four others from Baldwin County, were recently offered full-time jobs as fabrication trade assistants with the shipbuilder, and full-time benefits.

Craig said he was sitting on his granny’s front porch when he received the news that he would return to the shipyard not as an intern but as a full-time employee, with benefits.

“I was jumping around, I couldn’t stop smiling,” he said. 

Benson agreed.

“I couldn’t wait to get my adult life started,” he said.