Third-generation iron worker sisters boast careers where the sky is the limit

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A FAMILY AFFAIR: Melanie Johnson (left) and her sister Katie (right) were able to work side-by-side with their father Daniel Johnson (center) on their first project, the Daniel Boone Bridge. – Katie Johnson photo

Katie and Melanie Johnson are following in their father’s footsteps

By SHERI GASSAWAY
Correspondent

For third-generation iron worker sisters Katie and Melanie Johnson, there are no glass ceilings. In fact, the sky’s the limit.

Following in the footsteps of their father, grandfather and uncle, the two entered the apprenticeship program at Iron Workers Local 396 in 2014. Both women were looking for a career in which they could work outside and earn enough to be able to provide for their families.

“It’s one of the best choices I’ve made in my life,” said Melanie Johnson. “We grew up around iron working so we weren’t afraid to do the work, but it sure made it easier to go through the program with my sister beside me.”

IN SEARCH OF BETTER CAREER OPTIONS

Before joining the Iron Workers, Melanie worked as a medical assistant. But as a single mom, she needed better wages and benefits to fully support herself and her son. In considering her options, iron working was a natural fit. She wanted to work outdoors with her hands and she had firsthand knowledge of the benefits of working with the union.

“Melanie asked Dad if he could put in a recommendation for her, and he was happy to help,” Katie Johnson said. “And then I was thinking, ‘I want in, too.’ But I wasn’t sure at first because I was a little scared.”

At the time, Katie was in college majoring in biology with a minor in botany. As a teenager, she had worked part time at a marina and thoroughly enjoyed the experience because she was able to work in the beauty and tranquility of nature. However, the further along she got in her college studies, she realized most of her time in that field would be spent working indoors.

THE DEFINING MOMENT

KATIE JOHNSON knew she wanted to be an iron worker the minute she was able to tour her iron worker father’s jobsite as part of a union picnic.

Then she attended one of her dad’s union picnics, and guests were invited to tour the jobsite of the Daniel Boone Bridge, a project her dad was then working on.

“I went up there and looked around, and it was just beautiful,” she said. “That’s when the opportunity presented itself, and I knew iron working was a fit for me. I thought, Wow! If I could work on a bridge just one time in my life.’”

One year later, Katie’s wish came true and she and her sister worked on the Boone Bridge side-by-side with their father Dan Johnson. It was the women’s first project.

“Sure enough, we aspired to be like our dad,” Katie said. “We were raised hearing iron worker tales, not fairy tales.”

MOM CRIED

While their dad was pleased to learn of his daughters’ career decision, their mom Susan wasn’t necessarily thrilled with the news.

“She cried,” Katie said. “She was proud of us, but iron working is a dangerous career, so it meant she’d have to worry about Dad and us.”

‘IRON WORKING IS IN MY BLOOD’

Katie said her dad was asked during an interview why he chose to be an iron worker. He said he does it because he can and not everyone can.

"I believe the same thing,” Katie said. “Iron work is something that I know I can do and do well. It’s in my blood.”

QUIET, BEAUTIFUL AND EXCITING

MELANIE JOHNSON, a third-year Iron Workers Local 396 apprentice, works on a project at Washington University. She entered the apprenticeship program with her younger sister Katie Johnson at the same time.

Katie said what she enjoys most about her job is being up high in the air and the peace of looking at the landscape with a bird’s-eye view.

“There’s nothing like being on the 13th floor of a building on a beam with maybe one other person,” she said. “It’s so quiet, beautiful and exciting at the same time.”

WOMEN CONSIDERING ENTERING THE TRADES

Katie and Melanie both encourage women to consider careers in the trades. They say while iron working and other jobs in the building trades were traditionally considered jobs for men, that’s not the case in today’s marketplace.

“We are seeing more and more women entering the trades,” Melanie said. “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because you’re a woman. We can succeed and do just as much as men can, and what my sister and I are doing is proof."

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