Celebrating Black History Month: A Q&A with Victoria and Jordan Johnson

Since 1976, we have observed Black History Month each February to celebrate the achievements of African Americans and their role in U.S. history. We sat down with Victoria and Jordan Johnson, two sisters who build impactful projects in Atlanta, Georgia, to talk about Black History Month, the importance of diversity and what it’s like working in the construction industry.

Project Engineer Jordan Johnson (left) and Assistant Project Manager Victoria Johnson (right)

Tell us a little bit about yourselves.

Victoria: Jordan and I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia with our sister, Julian Johnson and brother Joshua Johnson. I graduated from Old Dominion University with a degree in Civil Engineering, and moved to Atlanta in 2016 after being on a Skanska healthcare project for three years— the Children’s Hospital of Richmond Pavilion in Richmond, VA. I’m an assistant project manager at Skanska and have been with the company for eight years.

Jordan: I graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with a degree in Business Marketing. I moved to Atlanta in August of 2018. I’m a project engineer and have been with Skanska for one and a half years.

Why is it important that we celebrate Black History Month?

Victoria: It’s important to celebrate the pioneers and trailblazers within the community who persevered and accomplished goals that they were told they were not allowed to do or they couldn’t do. They gave hope to future generations.

Jordan: When we celebrate Black History Month, we celebrate a legacy. There was a time when there was a lot of social injustice and segregation—and people stood up against that. Now we can celebrate the strides that were taken so we can live the way we are but there is still work to be done. We’re also acknowledging the lost lives of innocents from senseless acts of hatred, like Emmett Till and the four little girls who lost their lives during 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing. At the same time, however, we’re celebrating who they were.

Who are some African American leaders that have inspired you?

Victoria: Two black leaders who have inspired me are Barack Obama and Oprah Winfrey. Barack Obama made being an African-American president a possibility. This was the first time in history, I was able to see someone that who looked like me in this position of power.  There is still work to be done, but this is monumental progress. Oprah Winfrey inspires me because of her back story and all the trials and tribulations she went through to get to where she is now. Your beginnings don’t have to be your end—that’s the message she portrays.

Jordan: Martin Luther King, Jr. (MLK) and Tyler Perry are very inspirational. It’s MLK’s dream and leadership that encourages me; he went about things peacefully, led a march in D.C. with 250,000 people in attendance and gave one of the most famous speeches in history. His vision and magnetism were incredible. Being in Atlanta, I’ve really come to respect Tyler Perry. He came from nothing and has now built an empire. It’s awesome driving down to East Point and seeing signs for his studio, which is built on a Confederate army base. Tyler is changing the narrative and giving amazing opportunities to minorities in the film industry.

What got you interested in construction?

Victoria: Two things got me interested in construction. My dad was a mechanical engineer, and he noticed when I was a kid, I would organize the dishwasher to be efficient. I would make sure all the utensils and plates were organized to maximize the amount of dishes I could put in the dishwasher to avoid running it all the time. Once I got to college, I was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I took an Introduction to Engineering class where I got to play with Legos. It was something so simple, but I was like yep—this is it.

Jordan: My sister, definitely. Of course, when she first told me she was in construction, my immediate reaction wasn’t very positive. But, as she told me about what she did in more detail, I became interested. I did my research on Skanska and realized that they were a company I’d like to work for. I thought it was incredible to be able to start a project from the ground up and impact the community in a positive way. I wanted to be a part of that.

How did you end up working at Skanska?

Victoria: I went to a career fair in 2012 and stopped at the Skanska booth. I asked the project manager there “What’s a Skanska?” We talked about the company and had a good connection, felt that this was a company where I could be myself and be open.

Jordan: After I graduated from college, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my life. Victoria suggested I submit my resume for an internship position at Skanska, which I did. I was accepted and interned for three months. After my internship, our Account Manager Matt Frey offered me a full time position. When I got in my car to go home that day I cried tears of joy. I spoke with my manager, Stephanie Palmer, a senior project manager, and she said they had offered me the job, despite my background in marketing, because I was a hard worker—they would take someone like me over anyone with the knowledge and degree who didn’t put in the work.

What project are you currently working on and how does it benefit the local community?

Victoria: I’m currently at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, working on the Concourse T-North Extension project. This project will add five new gates to the north end of the concourse, which will increase capacity for more flights. Prior to this project, I also worked on the airport’s Central Passenger Terminal Complex Modernization, Airside project. For that, we modernized the Plane Train stations, the Transportation Mall and signage at the boarding level of all domestic concourses. This has unified the terminals and enhanced the traveler’s experience. With nearly 300,000 people going in and out of the airport every day, we’re not just affecting the local community—but the world.

Jordan: I’m working at Grady Hospital, on the Center for Advanced Surgical Services project. This will be a free-standing ambulatory surgery and clinic center. Grady is a hospital for low income families, so this project is going to provide more beds and space to care for people in need.

What is your job like?

Victoria: As Assistant Project Manager, I oversee subcontractors and manage the project schedule and budget to ensure the work is progressing as planned.

Jordan: As a preconstruction engineer, I attend meetings with the client and subcontractors to make sure everyone is on the same page. I ensure that the materials subcontractors are installing—from steel to integral blinds—are the correct type, quality and dimension. I then confirm that the architect receives the material samples and approves them for use. If either the client or subcontractors submit Requests for Information regarding materials, I submit them to the architect.

As a woman in a male-dominated industry, have you faced any challenges?

Victoria: I’ve faced a few challenges. For example, when I’m with a male counterpart, other men typically introduce themselves to the male first, giving him immediate acknowledgement. It’s followed up with a “Hi, ma’am” to me. People on the jobsite tend to treat me as though I don’t know anything, too. However, as soon as I assert myself as knowledgeable, I quickly earn their respect. You have to prove that you belong each time, but once you do, your track record starts to speak for itself.

Jordan: As a woman, you can sometimes feel as though your voice doesn’t matter. At times, when I’m around a lot of men and tell them what to do, they question me. My team has helped overcome that challenge by telling those individuals that I belong there and should be listened to. Being able to give respect and receive respect back is essential.

What advice would you give a woman who is interested in joining the construction industry?

Victoria: Trust yourself. Don’t be afraid to speak up, and if you see something wrong, say something. It’s okay to not know everything, but always seek that knowledge from someone who’s been in the industry longer than you.

Jordan: Do it, because whatever you put your mind to, you can do. The sky’s the limit. Just make sure that when you get into this industry, you’re ready to work!

How do diverse teams improve how we work?

Victoria: Construction as a whole is not diverse. However, being in a city like Atlanta, which makes diversity a priority, the diversity is visible in the room. Because of that, I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of a diverse team: different ideas and thought processes have led to a variety of options, unique ideas and solutions that helped us overcome many project challenges.

Jordan: Diverse teams are important because they ensure that different viewpoints, means and methods are brought to the table. When you have individuals with diverse backgrounds and experiences on a team, they each bring their own unique ideas and aspects to the project. Someone may have a better solution because of their diverse background, whether that’s cultural or even educational.

What is the best career advice you’ve received?

Victoria: Don’t be afraid to say you don’t know. Be honest about it. If I don’t know something, I figure out the answer or find someone who knows the answer.

Jordan: Ask questions. There is no dumb question. There are plenty of individuals on my project with years of experience, and they tell me there are still things that they don’t know. The industry is continually evolving, so you have to constantly be working on yourself and asking questions.

Last updated: 2/7/2020