Sean Stem is president of Construction Network Inc. (CNI), one of Northeast Arkansas’ largest construction firms. The company, founded in 1974, performs construction work for a variety of clients, including academic facilities, medical and healthcare, multi-family, churches, industrial, and municipalities.
Stem discussed his thoughts on current construction conditions in Jonesboro and the surrounding communities with Talk Business & Politics Roby Brock.
Roby Brock: Construction seems to be in overdrive in Northeast Arkansas. What’s your take on conditions at this time?
Sean Stem: The Jonesboro market has always seemed to be somewhat insulated from what the national economy’s doing. Right now, everybody from the general contractors to all of your major subs — everybody’s busy. You can’t find enough help to do the work that’s up here, which is a good thing.
We’ve got about four major areas here that our city has kind of structured around. From the college campus to the industrial, and then you’ve got the farming and the medical. All four of those [areas] are huge here. So when the economy’s down on one thing or the other, we’ve got something else.
Brock: You talked about workforce and mentioned it’s hard to find good help. I’ve seen that in other parts of the state, too. Are you satisfied there will be a future workforce for you guys once these baby boomers start retiring? Is that something you worry about?
Stem: I don’t worry about it. I think it’s just a matter of people like us taking the younger guys that do work. You’ve got to take the time to train them. We don’t have a lot of turnover. We’ve probably got the same ten or 15 guys in the field that we’ve had for 15 years or longer. But we try to take the time to take a guy that we hired and teach him how to be a carpenter or how to be a lead man and so forth. I’ve got three of my superintendents hired on as carpenters.
Brock: You guys do a wide variety of projects. Is there any particular area of business that you see booming right now over another? Or is it a little more even keel?
Stem: You know it seems like right now it’s more evened out. A few years ago, it seemed like all the educational facilities were doing something. That’s kind of all leveled off it seems like. But right now, we’re doing a little bit of everything. Diversity.
Brock: What are some of the core economic indicators that you keep your finger or your eye on to make sure you can predict where you think the market might go?
Stem: Obviously, stuff like tariffs on steel that Trump’s proposing and doing and all that … those things change the market. But that’s what we tend to look for. Material prices, you have to know what they’re doing. You can also follow the real estate market to a degree to see what’s going on.
Brock: Do you think a corner has been turned in Northeast Arkansas where it’s going to continue to trend upwards for the foreseeable future? Or do you think there’s still some things that might be tenuous where an interest rate hike or a particular type of tariff could really swing some things in a different direction?
Stem: No, I don’t think anything will slow the progression here. I think the tariffs and all that’s going to do is shift the type of construction. I mean, it’s happened before, a few years ago. There were some steel prices that skyrocketed. There were actually a couple of schools around here that built wood framing. So it’s changed, but I think we’re so insulated around here that I don’t see even rates or anything affecting it a lot. I think for the most part, we’re going to keep growing — even if it’s at a lower, slower pace potentially.