Jimmy Smith Jr. makes you feel you’ve always known him, and all it takes is a few minutes of conversation.
As the solid waste and landfill superintendent of Thomasville, Ga. — and having worked for the city since 1995 — Smith has produced a great mark within a beautiful community and a wonderful organization.
“I was just a young country boy when I started with the city of Thomasville — my first real job. I can recall starting as a refuse collector. I would physically handle waste throughout each workday, which showcased a multitude of obstacles — weather conditions, lifting heavy containers, an immense amount of walking, just to name a few. But I was always excited about working in my hometown. Through the years, I worked up from a CDL equipment operator to a crew leader to team leader to foreman and, eventually, the position I’m serving now,” said Smith.
Smith shared he didn’t really see the need for college and went right to work as soon as he’d graduated. But in 2016, while celebrating his niece’s birthday party, his mom answered the phone, dropped it and left the room.
“Dad went to see what the problem was and came back and told us: Mom has cancer. I was thinking: What can I do for her? What would be something that would really make her feel good despite this heartbreaking news? And it was pretty simple. She always wanted us to continue our education, and so I did. Back to school for my lovely mom. That was some form of relief I could give her. I graduated with an Associate of Applied Science degree in business management. I must say I really enjoyed my time at Southern Regional Technical College and so did my mom! She lived to see me graduate, earn Student of the Year and speak at a few graduations. I met Gov. (Nathan) Deal’s cabinet in Atlanta, Ga., as one of the G.O.A.L. (Georgia Occupational Award of Leadership) students. Seems like I just kept moving and climbing.” I continued with my education, but before I could finish, my beautiful mother passed. I vowed to finish because she would want that. So, I pushed forward and received my Bachelor of Science degree in environmental management.”
Smith is amazed at how much has changed during the years of his employment with the city.
“A lot has changed — the workforce, in general, when you punched into work, you came into work! But I can say technology has made things a lot easier than in the ʼ90s — you can now put a truck in drive just by pushing a button. No more writing and filing, just a click and documents can be saved forever! Text acronyms — I didn’t know what they were at first when speaking with the younger generation, but I eventually got used to text communication. And the way we dress. Used to be shirts and ties, now it’s casual pants and tennis shoes. I guess that’s how it is now. And I kind of noticed that it seems to be harder for some of the younger workers to put in the work at the bottom; they want to start right out at the supervisor level. But you got to put in the groundwork first, learn your way up to that. And when I started, the pay was something like $4.15 an hour, and now you offer $20 to someone, and they will quickly say … that’s it?”
Smith is a family man. “Four beautiful daughters and my wife! I’ve asked the guys at work, do any of you have a blueprint on how to win an argument with a house full of ladies because I haven’t learned how to win yet? Two of our girls are in college, and the fraternal twins are in the seventh grade.”
And family needs have reconfigured his life, as well. “My wife has an illness — scleroderma — and now I am privileged to be her caretaker. Things you might take for granted, like taking the top off the orange juice, she can’t do anymore. So, we stay humble and prayed up. I want to show my girls that there are people who will love you for you, no matter what. But I still have a lot of responsibilities in leading two departments and representing a great organization to the public. A lot of people look up to me, and I want to meet that well, set the bar high.”
As with so many other businesses, COVID made its presence known. Smith said, “I had COVID, and it hit me hard. At one point, it was hard for me to breathe normally. It was so bad that my beautiful wife, despite her fighting her own health battles, pushed and placed herself in harm’s way to drive me to the local hospital. I eventually recovered and tried to backtrack my steps on where I could have picked it up from. I attended meetings and other public community events, so it’s hard to say where I was exposed. COVID caused a lot of businesses to shut down, but it didn’t shut down the city of Thomasville Landfill or Solid Waste departments. Mostly, you have just one person in a setting/unit, so we were pretty much distancing just by doing our job — everyone riding and working by themselves. A lot of people thought handling garbage was the riskiest of all when it came to COVID, but you are safer as you aren’t really touching anything because you’re in the cab of a unit where the equipment is doing most of the handling!”
He continued, “But we have staff shortages now. Used to be about 28, and now down to 11. We’re trying everything to get more help. We’ve done job fairs and advertising; we’ve done pretty much everything but sign-on bonuses. We are promoting within, and that helps some. But when you work with a short staff, morale goes down quickly, so I don’t stay in my office too long, just sitting behind my computer. I’m out walking through, high-fiving people, jumping in to help with the trucks, because hey, if we can go home early, let’s go! I have an open-door policy. They all have my cellphone number. You need me? Got something you want to talk to me about? We’re family! I try to create an environment of team openness. You got something going on? Can’t work a full shift or whatever? We’ll make it work. It makes them feel good. Makes them feel heard and seen.”
Smith has made some changes through the years. “We used to have over 7,000 customers, probably more, that received backdoor service. Two different pickup trucks would chauffeur 10 to 12 individuals around town. The guys and gals would walk through the yards and pull the containers to the side of the road. But there were a lot of problems. We ran into dogs who didn’t want us there. We may have accusations of removing items from private properties. The turnover rate was awful, and the job was excruciating. Once the cans were emptied, they had to take the containers back to their original location. COVID stopped this because of cross-contamination. That has saved us from hemorrhaging an abundant amount of cost expenses to provide this specific service. Heat exhaustion, frostbite, falls, strained muscles and dog bites are just a few to name that workers suffered through to provide exceptional service to our customers — workman’s comp costs were in the top 3%. Now the customers are responsible for placing containers at curbside.”
Another change has been technology. “Hardware has been installed inside the waste collection trucks, which has helped a lot. With GPS systems and in-dash cameras, we can tune in and see the driver, and check how the trucks are performing, such as fuel efficiency and onboard diagnostics. We also can retrieve video recordings to verify if a driver missed a service point or if a customer didn’t meet the requirements to receive service — container not out at the time of arrival, excessive waste around the container impairing driver to perform service, etc.”
Recycling has changed, Smith said.
“Cardboard, the prices went up and down, and we no longer take plastics because it wasn’t cost efficient — you could recycle 1s and 2s, but 3s through 7s weren’t taken. It just became simpler to say no plastic; we were transparent with the public, so they’d understand why. We do not accept glass because we couldn’t get anyone to take it for less than $2,000 — for an open trailer. And it would cost that much each time, even if the trailer wasn’t full. We continued to take metal, steel and aluminum. We had two major recycling centers, but they were receiving illegal participation, as users would discard mattresses, clothes and the such. Operation Shield from China wasn’t taking recyclables from North America anymore because of too much contamination. Medical waste, we got a handle on that years ago. Even at home, people are using jugs for needles. But we had trouble for a while with syringes as some thought — it’s plastic, so it should be okay. We eventually had to revamp our recycling efforts to stay current with the ever-changing trends. We used to collaborate with Keep Thomas County Beautiful for Earth Day and The Great American Cleanup. We would have big barbecues, music and different educational stations for all ages. We had lots of fun, but due to COVID, the events were either dismissed or arranged differently for social distancing. I hope we can get back to that.”
For Smith, this community connection is important.
“I’m very passionate about the citizens and the services we provide to them,” said Smith. “You’d be surprised at the relationships you build with the people of the city and neighboring towns. I wish I was able to shoot the breeze with each of them more often as I receive gratification knowing that my services offer them comfort and trust!” So, while Jimmy Smith Jr. is no Oscar the Grouch, it’s obvious that he takes extreme pride in his family and the communities that he serves.