Gerald Johnson, General Motors’ first Black vice president of North American manufacturing, received a lifetime achievement honor at the Black Engineer of the Year Awards STEM Conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb 8.
Johnson was presented with the award by Mary Barra, GM’s first female CEO.
Earlier that day, Johnson sat down for brunch with members of the media at the Capella Hotel in Washington, D.C. to talk about his groundbreaking 33 year career at the nation’s top automaker.
“My first assignment at 18 years old was to supervise 35 women on sewing machines—I still say that was the toughest job I’ve had,” Johnson said with a laugh, referring to his early days with GM in Euclid, Ohio. Later, Johnson moved from Ohio to Grand Blanc, Mich.
“That decision was huge because I went into a STEM environment, and about six months after I got there a young plant manager took over the plant who was just enthused about giving young talent opportunities,” Johnson said. “And I just happened to be a young talent and he gave me some opportunities that allowed me to progress fairly quickly.”
Johnson ascended to his current role on July 1. He manages more than 74,000 employees across 56 facilities in North America which produce some of GM’s most popular vehicles, including the Chevrolet Impala, Buick Enclave, GMC Sierra and the Cadillac CTS.
Johnson’s career also took him and his wife and their seven children overseas when he became executive director of manufacturing based in Zurich, Switzerland for three and a half years. During that time, Johnson was also responsible for GM manufacturing facilities in Russia, Poland, Germany, Spain, Portugal and Uzbekistan.
“That was hugely expanding for me and broadening,” Johnson said. “There’s a basis of commonality because it is manufacturing, so in concept the objectives and processes at plants are very similar, yet the cultures were obviously very different,” he added.
Johnson also reflected on the responsibility of being a role model and mentor as GM’s first Black vice-president of manufacturing in North America.
“It’s a responsibility that I can’t avoid so I welcome it,” he said. “Whether it’s in my role as senior leader of “G-Man,” which is our General Motors African ancestry network, or whether it’s in a lunch and learn session, which we do regularly with African Americans throughout the company.”
“It’s important that we make sure that everyone understands that there’s a place of opportunity, there’s a place of inclusion and that performance whatever body it comes in is welcome and that’s a huge responsibility,” he added.