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James Thornton: Paving the Way Diversity Committee Employee Profile – A Continuing Series

November 03, 2023 12:00 AM
By: Nicole Haney

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James Thornton, a 15-year employee, values time spent with family, hard work, and freedom of choices. I set up this day as a part of the District's Diversity Committee to highlight more of our workforce. However, I got so much more than that. Spending a day in the life of James, I started my day at the Lovedale shed in Elizabeth, PA. Outfitted in my personal protective equipment, I received a safety overview before climbing into James' truck. We made the trip to the staging area as we waited for the base repair operation to begin and where I started my day of questioning about his job, life, and diversity.

Q: A 6 a.m. start – have you always had this shift? What is it like in the winter?

A: I have been a part of the paving crew for 12 years now, I spent a few years on chipping (sealcoat) and originally started on the night crew. I prefer paving over winter because I get to move around more and the stimuli of all the moving parts with the paving operation and moving around the county depending on where the work is that day and/or week. My winter route is roughly Squirrel Hill Tunnel to Wilkinsburg and back. Rain days we typically work on our trucks, clean, etc.

Q: How long have you been with the Department?

A: I began in September 2008 as a temporary operator before moving to full-time TEO-A. I started in the Pine Creek section, went to Findlay for three years, then ultimately landed in Monroeville where I have been ever since.

Q: What made you want to join the Department?

A: Before joining the Department, I did labor work and though it was good work, you'd often finish a job and then get laid off until the next one came along. I knew a few folks at the time that told me to go for a job with the state and with the labor work, I knew I wanted more stability for me and my family.

Q: If you weren't working at PennDOT, what would your dream job be?

A: After graduating from Westinghouse High School, I started taking business classes at Cheyney University of Pennsylvania where I received an athletic scholarship. Unfortunately, I did not complete my schooling.

After we talked through these few questions, the operators received their direction and safety overview for the day from the foreman. As traffic control was set and all trucks were lined up, the miller began filling trucks for base repair operations. While the milling occurs, operators begin cleaning the milled area to start prep work for the asphalt. When it is James' turn to get loaded, he listens and watches closely to hear when his truck is filled and see signals from the milling machine operator, which are typically use of hand signals and the horn to dictate certain movements. Once James' truck was filled, we started the journey to the Derry Construction Company asphalt plant in Delmont, PA. If not for me chatting his ear off, James would have had 96.9 on to pass the time.

Q: If you were in your personal vehicle or at home, who would you be listening to?

A: Sirius 66 (Jazz), Donny James, Prince, Michael Jackson, Mariah Carey, Herb Albert are all on rotation.

Q: Tell me about your family.

A: My wife and I went to the same high school and reconnected a few years out of school. We have been married for 42 years and have 7 kids together ranging from 27 to 49. I also have another that I consider as my adopted daughter who has four kids that I refer to as my grandbabies.

Q: Who inspired you most in life?

A: Family is key, and both my parents and grandparents taught me everything I know. My dad worked for Joseph Horne's and had a cleaning company. My grandfather was a minister but worked 9-5 weekdays. They all taught me the value of hard work which I tried to instill in my family. Growing up in Homewood, I feel privileged to grow up when I did. Everyone looked out for one another.

Q: What is something most people do not know about you?

A: I love to cook and have been cooking since I was 19 years old. My two signature dishes are lasagna and potato salad. I use turmeric in a lot of my dishes. I also like to bike. I have a stationary bike that I use each night after a shift because it helps with sitting most of the day.

At this point, we completed the hour plus drive to the asphalt plant where James waited to have his truck weighed before dumping his millings. After emptying the truck, James sprayed his truck down in preparation for the asphalt material. Once loaded, weighed, and paperwork was received, we made the trip back to the base repair operation location.

Q: What is the best thing you have seen in your time with the Department?

A: I feel that management and employees both have become better as the years have progressed. Not only is there better and more open communication from the top down but there appears to be better initiatives. This helps with feeling more inclusive/diverse and I feel it has allowed more folks to open up and have better conversations.

Q: What do you hope the Diversity Committee achieves with their efforts or what does diversity mean to you?

A: My goal for the committee is that I would like to see a standard that would stay no matter who is there. We routinely have positions open and someone takes on the role, but they come with something different. I understand everyone is different but if there is a specific work standard withheld, then personal values can be appreciated but not influenced in the day to day. I also hope for a strong mentorship program. When I came on, training with an operator went through the basics and routes but with a designated mentor – someone can take on new employees "under your wings", go through the ins and outs, what can be done/not be done, who to go to for various questions and answers, etc.

To me, diversity could mean change, the optimism for change and people looking for it. I try to follow the "treat people how you want to be treated" way of life. It is ok to disagree with one another but ultimately, you need to remember the job still needs to be done. The maintenance staff is very diverse in education, background, likes/dislikes, etc. and you can tell that the work done by these folks there is a lot of pride in providing a solid finished product.

While James and I come different generations, upbringings, and life experiences, we both share one thing in common – the same pride in working hard and for a purpose. I cannot thank him enough for spending time with me, showing me the ropes, and explaining a day in his life. I have always known that our organization is full of incredible people and James really highlighted that during our time together. Thanks to the folks in our Maintenance forces who are out rain, shine, or snow!