Eastern Shipbuilding Group is poised to overtake Ascension Sacred Heart as the county’s largest private employer in the next few weeks, according to Gulf County Economic Development Coalition Director Jim McKnight.
And McKnight wasn’t sure the shipbuilding company wasn’t already the largest.
“They may be,” he said. “I actually did a review of it the other day, and they're not the largest private employer by a few. Now, it won't be long, and they will be the largest employer.”
Regardless, McKnight said Gulf County should expect Eastern to be around for the long haul, cementing themselves as a staple of the community, a goal that Eastern’s president Joey D’Isernia said is close to his heart.
Last Thursday, D’Isernia accompanied several Eastern employees to bring $5,000 worth of donated materials to the Port St. Joe High School welding program. The donation, he said, was part of a partnership the shipbuilding company has been forming with the school district since it opened the Gulf County shipyard in July.
He said one of Eastern’s largest goals is to hire local talent as it expands the Gulf County operations. This talent, he said, needs to be cultivated in the community’s youth.
"These programs are incredibly important because they’re part of establishing a pipeline of workforce development training of young people so that we can give them the tools that they need to succeed in life,” D’Isernia said.
“We realize that this area is small, and we can’t expect large numbers of young people and other craftsmen to come out of these areas. But we know that it’s a long-term investment for us.”
Jim Norton, Gulf District Schools’ superintendent, said the district has formed a handshake agreement with Eastern with the hopes of cultivating career-ready talent within the county’s students.
The St. Joe Company’s paper mill employed about 30 percent of the county’s workforce and was a staple of the Port St. Joe community until it shuttered its doors in 1995.
In time, D’Isernia said, perhaps Eastern Shipbuilding can fill a void many residents of Gulf County have felt ever since.
“We've moved into St. Joe... and we realize that we have an opportunity to be a positive influence in this community, and we take that very seriously,” he said. “My family has lived here for over 45 years.”
McKnight said with workforce expansion, he sees Eastern playing a crucial role in the county’s continued growth.
“It's a shifting dynamic within our county,” he said. “We're, you know, we've gone from prison being number one, but then you've got two up-and-comers, you know, and Eastern is the biggest one, and they will be the largest private employer in due time.”
After the paper mill’s closure, McKnight said, the county’s correctional facilities became the largest employer, then the school district and the local government. Ascension Sacred Heart, the local private healthcare provider, is Eastern’s competition for largest private employer.
“The exciting thing is that Eastern is growing in the direction that we need our economy to be growing, and that’s manufacturing,” McKnight said. “Formerly, manufacturing was our number one employer... We're climbing back. We’re probably back up to 9 or 10 percent of our workforce, and if Eastern continues to grow, we could again reach 15, 20 percent.”
Eastern, however, is not rushing to reach this benchmark. D’Isernia said part of becoming a community staple is playing the long game.
“We really believe in growing our workforce organically through local community programs such as this. We love to have direct hire employees that live, work and play in our region. And the reason that we do is because those folks typically carry with them the same core values that we have as a family company,” he said.
“They’re the kind of people that make up the future of our business and the future of our community.”
Eastern Shipbuilding will be hosting a career fair on Tuesday, Dec. 14 at the Port St. Joe Yard, 432 Howard Ave, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Central.
This story has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error about D'Isernia's hometown.
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