Gerald Johnson: General Motors North America Manufacturing VP
The automotive industry is filled with hard workers, innovators, and trailblazers, and Gerald Johnson is no exception. From East Cleveland to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to the upper echelons of GM, Johnson has honed his engineering and leadership skills — and he continues to give back as a mentor and volunteer. As part of our celebration of Black History Month, here’s a look at the life and career of GM’s Vice President of North American Manufacturing, Gerald Johnson.
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From a young age, Johnson had a way with numbers. From the time he was in first grade, Johnson remembers being pulled aside for testing — and passing with flying colors. While his commitment to academics would pay off later, it made young Gerald’s social life a challenge. “For me, being smart kept getting me pulled from my school, from my friends. It felt like my intelligence was costing me something.”
Eventually, Johnson’s hard work brought him to an elite private institution: Hawken School, located in Gates Mills. Having grown up on the other side of town, in Cleveland’s East Side, Johnson was disappointed that he wouldn’t get to attend high school with his friends. But with his family’s support, he ultimately chose to attend Hawken — and it turned out to be life-changing decision.
As a high school student, Johnson got an offer in the mail — it was from the General Motors Institute, currently known as Kettering University. GMI offered him a plan where he could rotate between working for GM and attending college for engineering. It was a win on every front: he could gain work experience, pay for his education, and earn a degree without missing a beat.
There was just one catch: Johnson began the program at age 17, so he was deemed too young to work on the GM plant floor. He had to stay in the office until he turned 18, at which point he began supervising operations.
Once he graduated with a degree in Industrial Administration, Johnson moved to a plant in Grand Blanc, Michigan. Of course, his hard work and engineering skills made him a star, and he eventually won a fellowship to attend the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned his master’s degree.
Throughout his nearly 40-year-long career at GM, Gerald Johnson has adapted to many roles. He’s been the executive director of GM’s Global Program Quality and Launch division, and he’s held leadership roles in labor relations and manufacturing, both at home and abroad.
Gerald Johnson continues to blaze trails as the African-American to serve as GM’s Vice President of North American Manufacturing. He leads a force of more than 74,000 GM employees, overseeing everything from assembly, to stamping, to powertrain operations. In 2014, GM honored his leadership with the Black Engineer of the Year Lifetime Achievement award at the automaker’s annual Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math conference. That’s not all — in 2018, the Society of Automotive engineers recognized Johnson with the Subir Chowdhury Medal of Quality Leadership.
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Today, Johnson continues to channel his passion for excellence by tutoring students in the Detroit Public School system and serving on the Boy Scouts Leadership Council, as well as mentoring, advising, and directing countless GM employees.
Kimiko Kidd is a native Daytonian. She graduated from Wright State University with degrees in environmental science and sociology. She loves her trusty old Honda Civic, but dreams of owning a 1974 Ford Falcon XB with a custom paint job and a vintage Kawasaki Z1000. In her free time, Kimiko can be found watercolor-painting, baking muffins, collecting rocks, playing old-school Nintendo games, writing her novel, sewing stuffed animals, and cosplaying as her favorite Mad Max characters. See more articles by Kimiko.