How Gerald Johnson, the first African-American manufacturing lead at General Motors, is changing the game

BY Preta Peace Namasaba March 28, 2024 3:09 PM EDT
Gerald Johnson. Photo credit: GE

Gerald Johnson is the executive vice president of Global Manufacturing at General Motors and the first African-American to lead manufacturing at the company. He is driving labor development at the $77 billion revenue multinational conglomerate. Johnson is responsible for 103,000 employees across 129 manufacturing facilities on five continents.

Growing up on Cleveland’s East Side, Johnson was a brilliant and inquisitive child. He was always being tested and sent to a different public elementary school that would suit his abilities. He received a scholarship during his 9th-grade graduation to attend Hawken School, an elite private institution. Although people from his neighborhood seldom got the chance to attend the school, Johnson wasn’t keen on leaving his friends and familiar environment.

With his parents’ support, Johnson made the integral decision to attend the school and come a step closer to his career. His school counselor introduced him to the idea of being an engineer as he excelled at math and science. The high wages earned by engineers convinced Johnson to take the particular path. He consequently received an offer from Kettering University (formerly General Motors Institute) to study and work in a GM plant.

He was 17 at the time and had to stay in the office because he wasn’t yet allowed on the plant floor. Johnson started supervising the floor at 18 years old. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Industrial Administration and later earned a company fellowship for a master’s degree at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Johnson became the youngest superintendent in the history of GM’s Fisher Body Stamping Plant at only the age of 24.

In 2002, became the first African American to hold the plant manager position at Mansfield Plant Stamping Operations. He then became the first African-American executive director of manufacturing at GM Europe in 2006. Johnson served as vice president of Operational Excellence and vice president of GMNA Manufacturing and Labor Relations. He also served as North America Manufacturing Vice President where he led more than 74,000 employees working in 56 facilities in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

Johnson is currently serving as executive vice president of global manufacturing for GE, the first African American to lead manufacturing at the company. He heads the conglomerate’s global manufacturing operations, manufacturing engineering, and labor relations organizations. He is responsible for the budget, quality, and safety performance of 103,000 employees working in more than 129 manufacturing facilities in 16 countries across five continents.

He has been credited for leading GE through the pandemic. Johnson and his team effectively provided resources ventilators and mask production for frontline health workers. He also was at the forefront of the company’s strong safety protocols and return-to-work strategies. Johnson ensured the safe reopening of GM plants and other operations.

In addition, Johnson is driving labor development at the company by advocating for diversity and inclusion. He is an inaugural member of GM’s Inclusion Advisory Board (IAB) and created media guides promoting racial equality in the workplace. Johnson is a member of the Board of Trustees at Kettering University and a volunteer mentor for TutorMate where he supports literacy learning for underserved school students.