Builders across the country have been unsettled for the past few years by the labor crisis, which once seemed only a distant and looming threat to business. But now, the scarcity of skilled workers is what industry professionals say is the top worry keeping them up at night.
One Colorado builder facing the labor issue along with the rest of the industry knew that much of the untapped potential for reviving the workforce could be found in the country’s young people, and he set out to find them. Pat Hamill, chairman and CEO of Denver-based Oakwood Homes, last year created the Colorado Homebuilding Academy, a learning lab of sorts that seeks to educate students—from high schoolers to adults looking for a job change—about a career in home building and provide them with hands-on construction experience. The academy expects to have more than 500 students complete programs in 2018.
“We’ve been talking about the decline of the workforce for at least five years now, and when we realized the problem not only wasn’t going to go away, but actually get worse, we decided to do something about it,” Hamill says.
As a leader who has spent his career instilling the importance of charitable giving and volunteering into his 27-year-old company’s DNA, Hamill is the recipient of the 2018 Hearthstone BUILDER Humanitarian Award, which he’ll receive in May at the Housing Leadership Summit in California. The award—presented annually by BUILDER and Hearthstone, an investor in residential development—has given nearly $6 million to charity in its 19 years. It honors builders who have shown a lifetime commitment to making their communities a better place to work and live.
Amy Schwartz, executive director of BuildStrong Education, a private foundation of Oakwood Homes that funds the Colorado Homebuilding Academy among other education campaigns, found local nonprofits organizations that were already working to combat the labor shortage through construction training and created partnerships that helped bring the academy to life.
“The academy is housed in 20,000 square feet of space in one of Precision Building Systems’ truss and wall panel factories, where there is half of an Oakwood home installed in the lab space,” Schwartz says. “It has different stations where students can practice installing drywall, siding, or roof tiles, for example, and the stations have some mistakes engineered in for practice, too.”
The academy also helps with job placement for its students, hoping to get as many young graduates interested in the trades as possible. Hamill says the industry as a whole hasn’t done a great job “of marketing construction careers, so we partner with schools in the area to create awareness among young people about how they can be successful with a job in home building and all the opportunities available to them in the industry.”
Hamill knows education starts well before someone begins thinking about a career path, which is why Oakwood focuses heavily on funding programs that set up youth for success.
“Today’s kids are tomorrow’s future leaders,” Hamill says. “Our view is that learning is an issue of fundamental right, and it doesn’t matter what race you are, or if you are poor or wealthy—education is the one element that can help a child go wherever they want to go.”
Hamill founded BuildStrong Education (formerly the Foundation for Educational Excellence) in 1997. At the time, the parcel of land on which Oakwood would build its largest master-planned community, Green Valley Ranch, was home to the neighborhood’s failing middle school. Over a number of years, BuildStrong Education worked with other community partners to raise funds to transform the public school, which now serves students through 12th grade. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Early College, which has 1,116 students, has seen a 100% graduation rate for the past four years and offers students the ability to take concurrent college classes and graduate with an associate’s degree at no cost.
“We build master planned communities, and schools are one of the first things a family looks at when searching for a home, so we really take the entire experience seriously,” says Schwartz. “Some developers are happy just to have a school building nearby, but we believe it’s what’s inside that building that counts most. We have really seen a transformation in the Green Valley Ranch–area schools over the years.”
Oakwood Homes donates $1,000 per closing to the foundation. The company even continued to contribute during the downturn, though at a lower rate per closing. In total, the foundation has invested more than $5 million in funding for academic programs, construction costs for school infrastructure, and student and family support programs in and around Oakwood communities over the past 20 years.
The foundation also helped create Z Place, an early childhood education campus and service provider for more than 3,000 students and families. The building sits on a complex with multiple schools and provides support services, such as a doctor’s office, mental health services, after-school care, and academic help to the students on-site.
Believing that what children learn outside of school is just as important as what they learn in it, Hamill has previously served on the board of the Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver, and has led the organization in fundraising efforts. Similar to Z Place, the Boys & Girls Club also provides a place for its 10,000 students across 15 locations to go after school for academic help and recreational activities, at almost no cost to its members.
“We serve youth at probably the most important time of the day, which is after school,” says Hamill. “We create a safe space for them in some tough neighborhoods, and also serve dinners to the students every day, which is important for a lot of our families.”
Hamill has led numerous fundraisers to raise money for the organization, including building and donating a house through Home for Good and establishing a five-year, $1.25 million partnership with the Denver Broncos NFL team.
Kathy Luna, chief operating officer of Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, says Hamill’s commitment played a large role in keeping the organization going during the recession, as he continued to donate and raise money even in tough financial times. She touts Hamill as “one of our most successful volunteer fundraisers in the organization’s 56-year history.”
One such important fundraiser benefiting the Boys & Girls Club is a yearly golf tournament led by Hamill, who founded the Colorado Open Golf Foundation and a First Tee chapter in Denver. The First Tee, a national organization, is a youth development program that teaches life skills to students through the game of golf. Over the past 13 years since the program started in the Denver area, it has grown from serving 53 children to over 5,000.
“Many of these kids are from the inner city and wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity to learn to play golf,” says Hamill. “More importantly, they are learning important life skills, have mentors and role models, and even scholarship opportunities to attend college.”
Denver’s First Tee chapter is led by Colorado Open Golf Foundation CEO Kevin Laura, who says the skills children learn through the sports program go beyond just academics. “We will hear from teachers and parents who say they’ve seen an increase in the level of respect, attention, and integrity a child shows,” he says, adding that it’s an “infectious program” that likely wouldn’t have been possible without Hamill.
Hamill got involved at a time when long-running fundraising events were being canceled just before the recession. He created the Jack A. Vickers Invitational and other golf tournaments to keep efforts going, the proceeds of which fund the First Tee and Boys & Girls Club of Metro Denver. In the past 10 years, Laura says the events have raised more than $6 million, which has gone toward program funding and the building of new facilities for the two organizations.
“Pat came in and saved these 50-year-old golf tournaments that had been raising money for charity for years,” says Laura. “It’s really only because of his drive and leadership that any of this happened.”
Those who know Hamill testify to his quiet generosity, humble nature, and full commitment to both his causes and the community where he builds homes.
“He doesn’t go half in, but all in, and is really engaged in every project he is involved with,” Luna says.
Laura seconds that, describing Hamill as someone who “doesn’t do these things to be self-promoting or promoting of his business. He is truly committed with every cell in his blood and dollar in his pocket. He knows that better students create better adults, and therefore better communities, and he wants the people in the communities where he builds to be successful.”
Giving is part of who Hamill is, and it’s become part of what Oakwood Homes is as a company. Mark Porath, CEO of Hearthstone, notes that he is “always humbled by the self-sacrifice of the leaders in our industry, which inevitably makes it a difficult decision to just select one award recipient. This year, we will all learn from Pat Hamill’s selflessness and leadership, and be inspired by it.”
There’s no slowing down for the builder, who says he plans to stay “humble and hungry” going forward.
“My dad taught me very early on that just because you are born into a certain position in society doesn’t mean you are owed a thing,” Hamill says. “In fact, it’s quite the opposite—you owe a tremendous debt to the people who have come before you and created a better place. So I always ask, ‘How can you create an opportunity or environment for others to be successful?’”