Women central to dealership culture

Industry

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — Hannah Godbey and Cheyenne Kennedy are getting their hands dirty, changing oil in vehicles and inspecting tires for nails in the open express lane at Jenkins & Wynne Honda on a recent crisp and sunny fall day.

Inside the Honda store’s main service shop, Vic McDonald, with her two-tone black and blonde hair pulled into a ponytail and tattoos exposed under her short-sleeve work shirt, rolls two tires across the shop floor. McDonald, 25, who formerly worked in a kitchen, hoists them onto the Honda CR-V perched on a lift. She quickly fastens the balanced tires with lugnuts and lowers the crossover to the floor.

In a nearby service bay, Lacie Smith, 22, is busy inspecting and preparing a Honda Insight for the 40-acre, 1,100-vehicle dealership lot, attaching splash guards and installing accessories.

The four female technicians are an integral part of the culture at Jenkins & Wynne Ford-Lincoln and Jenkins & Wynne Honda, where nearly a third of the work force is female, including a growing number of women working in its service departments. Each department in the Honda store and in the Ford-Lincoln store has female employees.

“When I was little, it was mostly a man’s environment here. But that’s really not the case anymore,” said Casey Jenkins, a third-generation owner of the dealerships. “We have men and women of all ages working here in almost every job. And I’m really proud that is our culture.”

The percentage of female employees across Jenkins & Wynne’s operations bests the national average of just under 20 percent, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association 2019 Dealership Workforce Study. And its Honda service department — led by Jessica Burkhart— has eight female employees out of 23. That’s about 35 percent. Nationally, just 1 percent of service technicians are women, as are 7 percent of service managers and 20 percent of service advisers, according to the NADA 2019 study.

McDonald was hired when she brought her car into the Honda dealership for service about three years ago. Shop foreman Craig Tyre said he was talking with McDonald about what was wrong with her car and she described the work she had done to it, such as changing the oil and spark plugs.

“And I said, ‘Do you want a job?’ And she said, ‘Yes,’ ” Tyre, 61, a nearly 29-year Jenkins & Wynne employee, said over the classic rock music and loud shop noise. “And I talked to our service manager, and we hired her on the spot.”

Tyre admits that at first, it was a bit shocking to have women working as technicians. But he thinks they have helped the dealership, as customers sometimes even request that women work on their vehicles.

“A few of the women … have a lot more drive than some guys do,” he said. “And they’re more detail-oriented.”

McDonald, who started in Honda Express Service and moved into the dealership’s main service shop about a year ago, is now a full technician. While she sees this as a long-term career, McDonald confesses it has taken guts to step into what was mostly known as a man’s profession.

“You have to be mentally prepared every single day to do this because this job is very challenging. It’s definitely not for the weak- hearted,” she said. “I do run into challenges of males who come in here and say, ‘This is a male’s job.’ I mean, I still make my dollar and I still do what I can to proceed.”

Tyre, who trained McDonald and is working with Smith, said the male technicians in the store have accepted the female techs as sisters. “I look at them like daughters,” he said.

McDonald helped recruit Smith, who was working in retail and making pizzas in the evenings. Smith joined the Honda dealership about two years ago, moving a few months ago from Honda Express Service into the main shop. She’s an entry-level technician, focusing on heavier vehicle maintenance. “I just took her advice and I’ve loved it ever since,” Smith said.

Godbey, 21, started as a porter at the Honda dealership about 1½ years ago, happy to land a 9-to-5 job after working in a restaurant. Initially, Godbey thought she wanted to work in sales, but soon learned she liked hands-on work more. She has moved up twice already, first as a technician in Honda Express Service and now as a team leader there, where she has been recognized by Burkhart for her consistent selling of income-generating services and products, such as engine or cabin filters.

“I learn something new every single day, which is what I love about [the job],” she said over sounds of oil being pumped into a nearby vehicle.

Her advice to women who may be interested in working as an express service technician: “It’s basic needs and it’s basic information that everybody should know. And it’s not as hard as it looks.”

And her colleague Kennedy, 21, who had changed her own vehicle oil and helped her father on vehicles, said she likes “gettin’ dirty.”

“Dirt don’t hurt,” said Kennedy, a two-year dealership employee who started as a porter and moved up to an express technician. “It’s what I always say.”

Jenkins said interest among women to work in the dealership has been gradually growing, including for service roles.

“It’s really not about man or woman, male or female. It’s about your capability,” said Jenkins during a visit last month at the dealership, not far from the Fort Campbell Army base in Kentucky. “It’s really just more about capability and awareness and willingness for any role.”

Jenkins, 38, began working in the dealerships at age 12 in the role of “supreme filer” and has been full-time since college. Today, she oversees two dealerships, a detail center and collision shop, and 261 employees.

The company moved from downtown about four miles away in 2016 into new dealerships. They feature views into the service departments, vehicle delivery bays, a room for nursing moms, children’s areas with an Xbox and stadium seating for movie viewing, and a fenced and padded playground between the two stores.

Polite and courteous, Jenkins says “good morning” to employees and greets a customer waiting in the Ford-Lincoln lounge. The customer had two small dogs with her, and Jenkins offered them treats from the nearby welcome desk decorated for Halloween.

Jenkins said hiring technicians has been a challenge and word-of-mouth referrals have been key. Burkhart has had several customers apply after seeing women working on vehicles in the service lane. Burkhart, a Jenkins & Wynne employee since February 2002, said there were just two females in the Honda service department when she became service manager in January 2017. She said technician jobs pay well, with an entry-level technician able to earn about $40,000 a year, while some techs make around $80,000.

Jenkins, who said she’s proud to see many women grow into new positions with the company, said employing women in service has been an advantage for the dealerships, especially for customer satisfaction. She said she gets weekly emails in which customers give her female service advisers kudos for explaining work in detail and in a way that isn’t over their heads.
“[That’s] not to say that the men don’t do that as well. And they do. But I just have gotten a lot more feedback on our females,” Jenkins said. “And maybe it’s just because of the surprise factor. A lot of customers don’t expect females to be changing tires or changing oil or literally talking about service.”

Take Alicia Roche, a Ford Quick Lane service adviser since August. Roche, 39, was decorating cakes part-time in a bakery before landing a porter job at the Honda store a few years ago. She quickly became an express technician and moved to the Ford store a year ago, where she hopes to continue her career growth.

Roche said when she joined Ford Quick Lane, some of her male colleagues were apprehensive because she was the only woman. “First day coming in, I said, ‘You know what, just treat me like the one of the guys, no better, no worse. Just treat me like one of you guys,’ ” she said. “It went well from there.”

Roche said she thinks her gender and experience have helped her build trust with female customers.

“Customers love her,” Jenkins said. “She can communicate the whys and the whats from the technical side and still make it very relatable. So her customer satisfaction scores are always top notch.”

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