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August 17, 2023
Jacob “JT” Howington is a general manager at GFL Environmental. Howington, a Waste360 40 Under 40 award recipient, began his career in the waste industry when he accepted a position in Waste Industries’ management development program, betting on his own ability to develop as a professional, and being ready and willing to move for a leadership opportunity within the company.
After spending time in a variety of operations across North Carolina, his first permanent position was operations supervisor of the roll-off line of business and three transfer stations in Durham, North Carolina. He worked his way up within the company, to a general manager position, overseeing sites across Eastern Virginia and Northeastern North Carolina.
In this Q&A interview, he talks about his career pathway, why he was open to taking a chance to advance his career and how he continues to learn new skills.
Waste360: What was your pathway to your current role of general manager?
JT Howington: I joined Waste Industries, which was an acquisition company that GFL purchased. I started in their management development program in 2016. They bounced me around to different operations that were diverse in size and makeup, and they taught me how to run each line of business from the ground up. I was able to see different sites that had different trucks, different makeups, different routes. Being able to see different size branches that had different makeups, I think prepared me to have the skillset to deal with diverse workers.
I ended up in that program for eight months and, ultimately, I signed up for a floating supervisor role, which meant that anywhere they had a need, from North Delaware to South Georgia, I would go wherever they told me to go for an operations supervisor job, once one opened up. We didn't end up finding out where we were going to be living until three days before we got married—so, it was an exciting time for my wife and I.
I ended up in Durham, North Carolina, as the operations supervisor over a roll-off department in three transfer stations. I was in that role for about two years and got a promotion opportunity in the Fayetteville, North Carolina, market as their operations manager. I went from having probably 28 direct reports to having 125. I was there for two and a half years until I got the promotion opportunity in Chesapeake where I've been for the last three years.
When I got that promotion opportunity in 2020, I was just over Chesapeake, Virginia, and Elizabeth City, North Carolina. June of last year, I took over two additional branches in West Point, Virginia, a hauling operation and a transfer station.
Waste360: As a young professional, you saw an opportunity and you took it. What kind of decision-making went into being willing to move for the job?
JT Howington: I think that I had pretty high aspirations for myself, as far as a career, and what I saw and what I had heard about the industry is that there's a lot of upward mobility whenever you have the willingness to travel and do more. If you want to do more and you're willing to move, I think those opportunities are a little easier to come by than somebody that's stationary and not willing to move.
I saw that as an opportunity, and a company like Waste Industries, back then, they were in the southeast United States. Regardless of where I moved, it wasn't going to be but so far away from home. That was something that was important, and that still gave me the flexibility to have that sort of an opportunity.
Waste360: What is something that you enjoy about the work that you do?
JT Howington: I enjoy building cultures and building and maintaining relationships. That's probably my favorite part about the job. I love that, although there is some monotony to what we do, there's never been a day that felt the same. There is always a new problem to solve. The company has really allowed me to do a lot of different things, including training efforts. Over the last couple of years, I've had general managers that joined the company, in and outside of our area footprint, that they've allowed me to train, and that's something that I've been passionate about doing.
I really enjoy this industry because there's so much collaboration that happens between companies, too. For example, the National Waste and Recycling Association has a chapter in Virginia, the VWIA [Virginia Waste Industry Association]. That's something that I joined a couple of years ago, and this year in February, I was elected to their board as the finance chair.
There are a lot of opportunities to collaborate and learn and continue on my professional and personal growth journey.
Waste360: What are some ways that you've continued to learn new skills and develop professionally within the industry?
JT Howington: The VWIA has done a lot for my development professionally and learning more and broadening my scope of things that are on my radar. I don't have a landfill that I'm directly responsible for, but they do a lot of lobbying and things of that nature, so I've learned a lot from that group.
Also, I'd say having the opportunity to train new leaders coming in with GFL, that's been a great opportunity for me. Then, I've also recently been selected as an area trainer for GFL's diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging initiative. I'll be traveling around the Virginia region and to different locations in North Carolina and doing some training with some of our supervisors, managers, just to make sure that we're on top of those sorts of initiatives. That's obviously a hot topic these days and that's something that GFL's really putting a lot of emphasis on.
Waste360: You have touched on this, but do you feel like the waste industry has growth opportunities for young professionals?
JT Howington: Absolutely. Coming into this industry, when I first started, I think I was 22 years old, and to have the sort of growth journey that I've had is not something that I would say is typical, but [in the waste industry] there are just so many opportunities for growth and development with a lot of different companies.
It's just not something that was on my radar when I was coming out of school. I never gave that a thought. I think as an industry we could do a better job of getting in front of some of these students, whether it be career fairs or things of that nature. But, I think there are lot of different things companies are doing to try to solicit young talent.
Someone who I've seen as doing an incredible job in the industry, as of late, is the Women In Waste Initiative. I think we have come so far with that, and I think we're just now scratching the surface of what that can be. I'm really looking forward to seeing how that continues to grow.
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