Home Career Getting the balance right: Port Pirie’s Director of Infrastructure, Kathryn Johnson

Getting the balance right: Port Pirie’s Director of Infrastructure, Kathryn Johnson

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Mornings at Kathryn Johnson’s house in Port Pirie are hectic. The Director of Infrastructure at Port Pirie Regional Council has three sons aged 14, 13 and 10. “Getting them up and out of the house is a challenge,” says Kathryn, who takes turns dropping the boys to school with her husband Marc, a student support officer.

For Kathryn, living in a regional area means being able to strike the balance between career and family. “Port Pirie is a small town – everything is five minutes away,” says Kathryn. “The primary school is on the way to the high school, which is on the way to my office. It’s all in a nice straight line.”

Kathryn has lived in Port Pirie, a town of 17,000 people 220 kilometres north of Adelaide, since 2009. That’s when she and Marc moved from Cairns to be closer to his family in Clare.

Kathryn had worked for Cairns Regional Council, where she secured a cadetship as a design technician straight out of high school. “I worked my way up in project management,” she says.

At Port Pirie Regional Council, Kathryn first served as Manager of Assets before being promoted to Director of Infrastructure eight years ago. In her role as director, Kathryn manages a team of 40. “I look after anything in our region that you can see – roads, drainage, parks, buildings,” she says.

Key concerns include the region’s ageing infrastructure and “keeping up with asset maintenance and renewal”, she says. “One of the things we’ve been working on the last couple of years is a business improvement program, so we’re trying to do more with less.”

She says community expectations have changed in recent years. “It’s not rubbish, roads and rates anymore – people want open space, better sporting facilities and better parks,” she says. “To be able to provide those to the community is quite challenging.”

A day serving her community

Kathryn’s workday starts around 8.45am with a catch up with her personal assistant to discuss the day’s tasks and priorities. “Sometimes things don’t go to plan, and you have to be agile and make adjustments,” she says.

Once a week, Kathryn has a mid-morning meeting with her team’s managers and supervisors where they plan out the week, highlight priorities, flag staffing issues and review safety and customer response data. “I’m lucky to have a great team,” she says.

Reporting to council is a key aspect of Kathryn’s role. She provides updates on council infrastructure to elected members and the community, particularly matters requiring a council decision.

Two days a week, Kathryn works out of the council depot, where most of her team is based. “I enjoy being at the depot,” says Kathryn. “I work at a hot desk and my team members pop in to talk to me to get quick answers to things that might be troubling them, or they might want help with something. It’s about being visible and available.”

Occasionally (“not as much as I would like”), Kathryn goes into the field to follow up on customer requests, inspect construction projects and engage in planning work.

Although sometimes she eats on the run, Kathryn tries to escape the office at lunchtime. “The council administration centre is in the CBD of Port Pirie, and I try to walk to get a coffee or lunch,” she says. “I like to support the local economy. We’re lucky in Port Pirie, we’ve got lots of coffee shops and cafes.”

Around half of Kathryn’s day is spent in meetings – many of them now online. The shift to Zoom meetings since the arrival of the pandemic “has made the rest of Australia more accessible to us in Port Pirie with regards to meetings, consultants and contractors, and training and education. It saves a lot of travel time,” says Kathryn, who often travelled to Adelaide once a week before the pandemic hit.

Virtual meetings have also been useful in Kathryn’s role as Secretary of IPWEA’s SA Division, allowing her to attend seminars, workshops and talks from her base in Port Pirie.

“When we attend face-to-face training, you get to meet other professionals and share ideas and make connections, so if you’ve got a problem, you can reach out to someone who can help solve it,” she says. “What we face in council and public works, a lot of it isn’t new – someone has faced the same issue before. If we can work together and share our lessons learned, that’s a huge part of what we do at IPWEA.”

When Kathryn attends council meetings, her day doesn’t finish until after 10pm. She usually leaves the office at 5.45pm and, after a short drive home, spends the evening ferrying kids to sport and dance lessons, at the gym, or training with her hockey club (she plays for South Australia’s over-40s hockey team).

Kathryn enjoys making a positive contribution to the community. She particularly likes seeing “freshly laid concrete and a newly laid road – that’s the engineer in me”.

The most rewarding aspect of her role is solving problems, “Whether that be delivering a project for the community – taking something and fixing it – or trying to come to a resolution with a ratepayer that might not be happy about something,” she says. “Serving the community has its challenges but it’s the most fulfilling role for anyone working in council.”