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Clarksville-Montgomery County’s growth impacts construction companies


For Hawkins Homes, the construction industry is booming and it’s a two-edged sword.

The Clarksville-based company is often juggling dozens of projects as the city sees unprecedented growth with subdivisions and new business sprouting up at an accelerated pace.

To keep up, Hawkins Homes and other contractors are fighting over skilled trade workers as Middle Tennessee continues to grow. Many are trying to meet the demands of a flooded job market, placing workers on job sites as quickly as they can get them interviewed and hired.

Evan Ellis, chief construction officer for Hawkins Homes, told The Leaf-Chronicle that recruiting workers for the various jobs around Clarksville-Montgomery County has become “cutthroat,” with many contractors having to offer higher wages and better hours to entice potential employees.

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Business is booming 

Profits for many construction companies are up and for Hawkins Homes, they are as busy as they’ve ever been.

“The last five years, we’ve had record-setting years every year,” Ellis said, noting that over the last two years, during a global pandemic, the company has seen its best profit ever.

Currently, Hawkins Homes is working on 140 projects in various stages, including builds at Cunningham Plaza off Fort Campbell Boulevard. Ellis said it’s the most they have ever had at one time.

“We probably have a total of 250 single-family units this year and probably closer to 200 multi-family units, overall,” Ellis said.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a shift in Middle Tennessee’s skilled trade field, Ellis said.

Baby Boomers are retiring or slowing down due to the physicality of the jobs, leaving more for younger generations, he explained.

But fewer people are seeking skilled trade jobs, especially during the technology boom that has created jobs that didn’t exist a decade ago, Ellis said. Growth in the industry has also helped steal potential jobs from construction companies as industries like LG, Hankook and the soon-to-open Amazon distribution center cut into the job market with higher-paying wage offerings, he said.

Fighting for workers

“It’s more of a fighting, fighting for certain people,” Ellis said of the job market for construction workers. “We do have to battle because there’s not as large of a pool of subs (subcontractors) and employees. There’s a lot of people jumping ship, and kids just chasing the almighty dollar.”

For every prospective employee, there are at least two jobs, Ellis said.

And workers are calling the shots, according to John Watz, military liaison for Workforce Essentials in Clarksville.

But business can only succeed when there are candidates to fill jobs.

The top brass at Hawkins Homes knows that many people they interview are interviewing at multiple places. Ellis said when they reach out to offer a job, people will often weigh their options, go to the highest bidder or ghost the employer, a practice all too common in today’s workforce where a candidate does not respond to job offers or fails to show up if something better comes along.

And with more people moving to Clarksville, it’s complicated.

There’s a desire to build new houses, apartments and subdivisions. But that means more workers are needed to keep up with that demand, Ellis said.

The pool is limited even more at Hawkins Homes because the company vets potential workers before beginning its interview process.

Schools help with demand

Watz and Ellis said the Clarksville-Montgomery County School System and other trade schools in the area are doing a good job of producing a workforce that is trained and ready to contribute. But COVID-19 has allowed many workers to pick and choose what field they enter and what jobs they accept.

“One of the things we’ve seen in some of the training areas, like Tennessee College of Applied Technology and in the community colleges, is once an individual gets a certain level of skill, employers are already knocking on their door,” Watz said.

In addition to encouraging more youth to seek skilled trade training, local jails are being mined of potential workers among non-violent offenders who have served their time in an effort to close the gap in a number of workers versus available jobs, Watz said.

Another recruitment area for skilled trade work is military veterans living in or around Fort Campbell.

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Because Hawkins Homes has multiple projects underway, Ellis said many workers are jumping from project to project, rather than focusing on one project at a time. Some are also branching off from their employers and starting businesses of their own.

“It’s growing with the market,” Ellis said. “But still, there are niches and jobs that we have lower numbers than others… I don’t think it’s necessarily growing at the same rate as the housing market has grown.”

There have been times, for example, when painters were in supply while framing jobs saw shortages, Ellis pointed out.

“Everything’s not necessarily rising … at the same time,” Ellis said.

An employee’s market

Unemployment rates are low in Middle Tennessee, and with rising costs for childcare and gas and a desire to call their own shots, employees have the power to pick and choose their jobs, Watz said.

Many workers will seek out jobs that offer certain pay during a preferred shift, and if their demands are not met, the workers are holding out for the next opportunity, he explained, noting that companies like Hawkins Homes are then forced to decide between meeting new demands or holding out for workers to come along.

And it’s not just construction.

Worker shortages are being felt throughout Middle Tennessee, in industries ranging from food service to manufacturing, Watz added.

“Just in food service, you go to a restaurant and instead of four waiters and waitresses, there’s two,” Watz said. “They are all having difficulty not only recruiting but retaining individuals as well. Everyone is competing for the same skillset, or a similar skillset, depending upon the industry.”

Reach reporter Craig Shoup by email at cshoup@gannett.com and on Twitter @Craig_Shoup. To support his work, sign up for a digital subscription to TheLeafChronicle.com.

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