Justin Johnson ’16 is living proof that as students grow, the University of Arkansas — Fort Smith grows with them.
Johnson, who lives in Lavaca, started at UAFS in 2006, planning to pursue an accounting degree because he liked math. However, when he was hired as a welder at Trane Custom in 2006, he learned that he enjoyed the work and had a knack for it. So he became an evening student and “got every certificate in welding (the school) offered.”
He connected with two technical instructors, Mike Crawford and Jimmie Dugan, who encouraged him to think of working toward a career and not just a job. Dugan, who had worked at Trane Custom, was an especially helpful mentor because of his insights into Johnson’s employer.
When he started thinking career, Johnson began taking classes in the workforce leadership program, but his plans changed again when he was bumped to the night shift, making it hard to take classes.
His school plans may have been detoured at that point, but his career was not. In 2012, Johnson was made a supervisor.
Johnson said his boss, Neal Smyth, “became interested in my growth.” When Phil Farr replaced Smyth, he also encouraged Johnson to think forward.
Together they mapped out a plan that included Johnson’s earning a bachelor’s degree, a “preferred qualification” for a career track at Trane Custom.
When his bosses asked Johnson what he needed to be successful, the young supervisor replied that he needed the chance turn down extra weekend shifts so he could study.
Working with Farr, Johnson mapped out a plan to graduate in spring 2017. However, Johnson pursued a more ambitious schedule and received his bachelor’s degree in organizational leadership in December 2016.
Although he moved a little more quickly through the curriculum than he planned, it wasn’t because the work was easy.
He said he thought the degree, designed for students who have completed associate degrees and want to earn a four-year degree, would be a cakewalk. Instead, the courses challenged him – and changed him.
Speaking in December, a few days before graduation, Johnson said before he began leadership education, he thought he had a pretty good demeanor with his staff and was a good boss. As he learned more about transformational leadership, he realized he had been “bulldozer-like” in his employee management.
As he studied he learned new ways to interact with his staff and came to recognize that different people might respond best to different approaches.
“Soft skills have such an impact,” he said. “Anybody who works hard enough can master the hard skills, but the soft skills are important too.”
Johnson is now operations manager at the Fort Smith Trane Custom plant responsible for three supervisors, 18 team leads, and 150 hourly workers. When his boss is out of the plant, Johnson is the No. 1 guy. His next step, he says, is to be manager of a small plant within the next 3-5 years and manager at a medium-size plant in 7 years. He expects to be a vice president within 10 years.
He meets regularly one-on-one with the three supervisors and three of the team leads. He says he wants to be as helpful to them as his own bosses were to him. He offers them mentoring, but he tries to let them discover their own way as supervisors.
“They should all have the same values and the same goals,” he said. “But they can’t all have the same personality.
Johnson is married to Megan Johnson who graduated as a registered nurse in 2009. They have a 5-year-old daughter, Ella.