Engineer Robin Thorne Handles Her Business
By Dianne Anderson
Robin Thorne is not a novice engineer, but when it comes to her latest management gig, she’s excited to just get her foot in the door.
She was recently awarded the contract in managing the Long Beach Transit’s modernization project, which involves upgrading their facilities, including a state-of-the-art training center. The Transit is also looking to have zero-emission buses by 2030.
Because the transit company has little knowledge of construction, they hire outside firms like hers to manage the project for them.
That’s where she works her logistics.
“We’ll help them identify contractors, we help them create bids, the job walk, whatever they need from us. We’ll manage that construction process. We’ll advise them,” she said. “We make sure all of the i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed, in hopes that the second-year contract will increase.”
Her company analyses, and decides how the job is to be done. She has a superintendent, and she’s on procurement. She finds the contractors and others needed to do the work. She hires the right man, or woman.
“The Transit is more of a foot in the door, that’s how you start. But that’s a half-million foot in the door, and I’ll take it,” she laughs.
She also has a project at Long Beach City College campus providing deferred maintenance on buildings, upgrading restrooms, locker rooms, repaving sidewalks, and parking lots.
“Our team is helping them manage it. We’re not doing the work, digging or scraping, we’re the engineers managing the process,” she said.
Thorne led her first big project in 2018 with the $3.9 million demolition of a federal prison deep in the desert down to the slab. Before then, she worked smaller projects such as the demolition of the Youth Center for the Department of Forestry, but the prison with 122 structures, one to two-story buildings with an above-ground storage tank, was significant.
The prison, closed for 22 years, had become a hotbed for vagrants and dirt bikers. The challenges were predictable, but she was able to get her equipment in easily, and paid her general laborers a good wage at minimum $38 an hour. Transport and disposing waste are important, but she said it’s not as easy as throwing dirt on top. Native plants have to be replaced, some take years to grow, or find and purchase. Employees need a place to sleep if the job is far from home.
“It’s a lot of research and planning to overcome that,” she said. “We had to put them in hotels, logistics was a challenge. We overcame it by just handling our business, having experienced people who knew how to take care of it.”
After the prison project, she started her mentoring nonprofit DemoChicks, where she and other sister engineers help girls into nontraditional, access scholarships, connection with the experts, like the National Society of Black Engineers.
The desert demolition turned out to be good proving ground, and springboard to transition to her latest contract. She recalls that someone asked her why she had to go out to the middle of the desert for a job when there is so much work to be done in Long Beach.
“I said I don’t know but I’m glad to share that we are starting to do work locally,” she said, and already, she is thinking down the line. “We’re excited to be local. Now we’re looking at how can we get into the port and the city?”
The port has diversity programs, which she said is a work in progress. Usually, the biggest challenge is the enforcement of diversity so programs have teeth.
Since the police murder of George Floyd, more companies seem to be developing programs, but she said it requires more than a statement of support. Some companies say they promote diversity, but whether their signed contractors can show their diversity records is another issue.
Lately, billions of dollars are starting to roll down in national ARPA funding, she is watching to see how it will play out locally. From what she hears, it’s about connecting with agencies with access to the money streams, like the SBA business opportunity specialists or Small Business Development Centers.
She would be interested in tapping it as a small business, if it is available.
“We want our piece,” she said. “I get excited off the idea that oh, there’s all this money, but I always say how does that translate to us, like me in Long Beach?”
For any budding entrepreneurs in the community, she said the main takeaway is for them to know that it’s not for the faint at heart, but they shouldn’t let anyone stop them from pursuing their dreams.
Depending on the day, it ranges from ripping and running at times, but she said every day she can be found first thing in the morning going over her Daily Devotional with her mom and sister, drinking tea. She gets centered first.
“If you’re willing to work and focused and determined, seek out knowledge from those who know more than you, then you can be successful,” she said.
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