Gary Dickinson

Graduation Year: 
Degree(s) at Duke: 
Bachelor of Science
Mechanical Engineering
Career Highlights: 
  • Vice President and Group Executive for the Technical Staffs Group, General Motors

Engineers have traditionally held a reputation for their analytical abilities, problem solving skills, and contributions to modem technology. Rarely, does a person encounter an engineer as outgoing, vivacious, and articulate as the man chosen for this issue’s alumni spotlight. As the recipient of the School of Engineering’s Distinguished Alumnus Award in 1986, Gary Dickinson is truly an exceptional graduate of Duke University In both his occupation and outside interests, he has proven himself to be a highly motivated and dedicated individual worthy of much recognition.

Dickinson joined the staff of General Motors in 1960, after graduating from Duke with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. And, for the past twenty-nine years, he has remained with GM. Dickinson’s present position is that of Vice President and Group Executive for the Technical Staffs Group. Though this title carries the heavy responsibility associated with running a large corporation, Dickinson could not be more enthusiastic about his present job.

While attending college, Dickinson claimed he was originally interested in the airplane business.

However, after writing to small aircraft manufacturers, he found that few opportunities existed in that field at the time. During his senior year, while Dickinson was editor of the DukEngineer, he noticed that General Motors was advertising in the magazine about the GM proving ground in Michigan. When the corporation came to the university to recruit students, they offered Dickinson a position. Having already heard about the Muford Proving Ground, and being a car enthusiast himself, Dickinson accepted their offer and was the only Duke engineer hired to work at the proving ground that year.

It is an ironic point that Dickinson’s first two jobs at General Motors concentrated on his two weakest subjects at Duke –— chemisty and vibrational analysis. His first job at GM was in the noise and vibration group at the proving ground, and his second position dealt with automotive emissions control. In discussing this, Dickinson remarked that an employee gets an assignment not based on his strongest abilities, but where the greatest need exists in industry.

Dickinson also mentions that his education helped as far as providing a base or a launching pad, but in his career he quickly went beyond that. The first emission control research began in California, where he later worked for five years. Dickinson is now an expert on automotive emission control, stating that his weaker subjects in college never held him back, because he was dealing with completely new technology.

As vice president, Dickinson does not do much actual engineering anymore. Instead, he leads the research and development areas, in which there are three major duties at his current position. His first responsibility is managing and operating a billion dollar research and development organization in such a way that great ideas make it into production. This part of running the business requires a high degree of organization. Secondly, he must act as an interface with other GM corporate activities, providing the right services to the various divisions and making sure to serve a wide base of corporate customers. Finally, his career has a strategic dimension in that he must decide what the company should pursue in the future, and what projects are not worthy of further investment. In summary, Dickinson stated that he needs to run the business, providing the right services to the different divisions, while making sure that they are researching in the right areas of new technology.

Citing examples of some activities he attends to on a daily basis, Dickinson said he had just met with his staff on the 1990 budget, had a meeting on customer satisfaction (for GM’s five divisions), and worked on a speech focusing on GM’s initiatives in the future. He does quite a bit of travelling in reviewing GM projects around the country, and he recently flew to Germany to attend a meeting with Lotus’ Board of Directors and to view an auto show.

Since Dickinson started working for General Motors, the car business has changed in many ways. The automotive industry is more competitive now than ever before, with more new entries into the marketplace every year. Also, there are more legislative requirements and regulations for emissions, safety, and waste management. Taking these rules into consideration, General Motors must continue to produce quality cars and trucks, making sure the customer is completely satisfied with the final product.

Dickinson said he never thought about switching jobs since he has been at General Motors –— he was always too busy to think about it, and he was never sorry about his career choice. Dickinson stressed that GM is a company he respects, and he strongly believes the values of a person’s company should match his or her own. Also, working at GM has kept Dickinson involved in a fascinating project; producing five million cars and trucks per year is never boring.

In considering the demand for engineers in the automotive industry, Dickinson stated that many opportunities exist out there, and the field of car production is very exciting. General Motors hires over one thousand engineers each year, and they come to Duke to recruit every spring and fall. Commenting on Duke graduates in the engineering field, Dickinson said, “I’ve always been proud of Duke graduates and how they perform:’ He went on to mention that Duke students have a high level of confidence and a great speaking ability, partly because Duke is not just a regional school, but also because the students get a broadening from exposure to non-engineers in arts and humanities classes. Overall, he has seen Duke engineers perform very well, and they do seem to stand out as excellent engineers and team players.

Dickinson’s advice to graduating seniors is to look for an occupation they are really going to enjoy. “Money won’t sustain your enthusiasm, you need to work for a company that will:’ He also advises students in the first few years of working, to become an expert in one area of responsibility to give themselves more depth. Dickinson mentioned that another way for students to increase their chances of success is to “do as much as you can to improve your ability to communicate;’ both written and verbal. While studying at Duke, Dickinson said he forced himself to take speech and writing courses, and stressed that one needs the ability to relate concepts to other people. As far as high paying careers are concerned, Dickinson says, “The money incentive doesn’t last long–— it doesn’t sustain people’s interest in their jobs. You really have to enjoy the grind, your performance suffers if you don’t really like it. The money will come in.”

When asked about the value of an engineering education, Dickinson commented that, “The engineering graduate is learning how to think. He can understand a problem, and have a sense of how to solve it.” Dickinson feels that an engineering education is a ticket to anywhere.
Even though he works from seven to seven every day, with at least two hours of work to finish at home each night, Dickinson still finds time for many outside activities. He is on the Board of Directors for both Lotus cars in England and for GME Robotics, for which he travelled to Japan in October. He is also a member of some local boards in Michigan, and he contributes much time to Duke University as well. Dickinson is presently Chairman of the Dean’s Council at the School of Engineering and a member of the Washington Duke Club.

His job, of course, takes top priority, and he recently had to cancel a visit to Duke for the Dean’s Council due to an emergency meeting. Even so, Dickinson still could not be more excited about his present position, saying, “Is this heaven? No, this is the GM Technical Staff.” But it comes very close to this mechanical engineer’s dream.

Sonia Altizer is a sophomore in biomedical engineering.