The Making of a Construction Leader: From Helper to President

Oct 27, 2019

Becoming the president of a company wasn’t something Ernie Caldwell initially thought about when he started in the construction industry. He earned his associate degree in mechanical engineering from Virginia Western Community College and tried to get an entry-level engineering position at Vitramon. The international company manufactured capacitors for the automotive industry at a facility in Roanoke. G.J. Hopkins, which is where his dad worked, was running a job there, and Ernie asked him to find out who was reviewing resumes. A few hours later, Ernie received a call from the G.J. Hopkins service manager. He told him to come work in the service department instead of applying to Vitramon, and he agreed.

Starting with G.J. Hopkins in 1993 as a helper, Ernie learned that water flowing through pipes and air through ducts really made sense to him. He decided to work full time and go to night school to earn his bachelor’s degree. In 1996 he accepted a new position with a consulting engineering firm and spent a few years designing HVAC systems before deciding cubical life wasn’t for him.

“I wanted to be a design engineer for the longest time, but I didn’t like the cubical time that came along with being a consultant,” Ernie said. “Very rarely do they get to go out and see what they designed. I missed being out in the field, and that’s one of the reasons I decided to come back to construction.”

Ernie returned to G.J. Hopkins in 2001 as the manager of special projects and engineering division. He spent the next decade in various positions but has always enjoyed working with people and solving clients’ problems. Ernie was part of the crew that helped the pharmacy for a local hospital meet airflow requirements so it could maintain accreditation, and G.J. Hopkins helped KIK Virginia triple its bleach production by installing a chiller and rearranging piping.

“Being able to help our clients is very rewarding. I love to hear those stories, whether I’m involved in them or not,” Ernie explained. “I also like being able to see tangible results. You can ride down 581, look at the Carilion facilities we’ve done, and feel proud that you were part of a meaningful project.”

As time progressed, Ernie started thinking about upper-level leadership roles. He was in The Branch Group’s Career Development Program and had a long-term goal of being company president when E. Clifton announced he was retiring. Ernie was nominated for the position and named President of G.J. Hopkins in 2011.

He spends a lot of his time at the office in planning meetings, reviewing contracts, and meeting with clients but tries to get out to the field whenever he can.

“I enjoy talking to the employees to see how they’re doing. I had the opportunity to learn about all three trades: electrical, plumbing, and HVAC, so I know what language they’re speaking,” Ernie said. “I understand what some of their challenges are, and that’s why I think, to a certain degree, people in leadership roles in this industry should have hands-on experience.”

Ernie’s industry knowledge is one of the reasons why he was nominated in 2018 for Governor Ralph Northam’s Build Virginia Advisory Board. The 18-month initiative connected workers throughout the Commonwealth with training and employment opportunities in the skilled trades. Now that it’s wrapping up, he will serve on the Governor’s Virginia Board of Workforce Development. The group will focus on ways to transform the state’s workforce system, prepare people for work, and help businesses fill openings.

“There’s been a shift, and people are acknowledging now that our school systems have been pushing for a four-year degree for too long,” Ernie said. “That’s not always the best or only option for students and individuals. If your career path takes you to a four-year college, that’s great, but not every career path takes you there.”

G.J. Hopkins is playing a role in growing the workforce with its apprenticeship program, which is getting ready to celebrate 25 years. Apprentices get paid to learn and receive the online classroom and on-the-job training hours required to obtain their journeyman license. The company started offering a student apprenticeship program last year. Individuals as young as 16 can visit job sites and begin exploring the trades while earning their diploma.

“We have five student apprentices, and if they choose not to stay here, that’s OK. What we’re trying to do is show them that they can have a good time. They get on Snapchat and social media and start talking about their experience, so maybe that influences someone else to give it a shot. We’re just trying to generate a positive buzz around the industry,” Ernie explained.

For people just starting in the industry, his advice is never stop learning. If you’re an electrician, be the best you can be while paying attention to all aspects of construction. If you know you want to be a project manager one day, talk to your supervisor so they can coach you.

“When you look at our project managers and estimators, the majority of them were recruited from the field. Someone noticed them, said they had potential, and helped them grow,” said Ernie. “I’ve seen career path documents where everyone seems to want a straight line to how you get somewhere, but this industry is like a bowl of spaghetti. You don’t have to go one way; you can move around.”
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G.J. Hopkins is a Roanoke-based mechanical and electrical contracting company. Since its founding in 1958, G.J Hopkins has provided reliable, high-quality service, making us one of Virginia’s largest and most respected contracting businesses.

Functioning as a wholly-owned subsidiary of The Branch Group, our firm operates under an Employee Stock Ownership Plan and is a 100% employee-owned company. This ownership model has produced a culture where each employee has a vested interest in the successful completion of every project and absolute satisfaction for every client. As we continue to cultivate a thriving work atmosphere, we continue to grow.

To learn more about a career in construction with G.J. Hopkins, please visit gjhopkins.com/careers/.

G.J. Hopkins has provided reliable service to commercial and industrial clients throughout Southwest Virginia since 1958. Our coverage areas include Bland, Buchanan, Carroll, Craig, Dickenson, Floyd, Giles, Grayson, Lee, Montgomery, Pulaski, Russell, Roanoke, Scott, Smyth, Tazewell, Washington, Wise, and Wythe Counties as well as the cities of Bristol, Galax, Norton, Radford, Roanoke, and Salem.

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