Contrary to what many automotive service personnel think, mathematics and English classes are vitally important to all aspiring technicians. Here's why.
I hear far too many owners and managers throughout the auto repair industry gripe that vocational and trade schools waste too much time on the allegedly unimportant topics of math and English. Nothing could be further from the truth.
At the same time, these bosses also grouse that they need techs who can diagnose problems. They say their guys can repair things just fine, thank you, but they can't diagnose what failed. They were saying that more than 30 years ago when I entered this trade. They're still saying it today.
So what's wrong with this picture? I believe the biggest problem is that skilled diagnosticians have to be, above all, disciplined thinkers. If there's one thing that math and English classes foster, it's disciplined thinking.
The first thing math teaches a student to do is distinguish between knowns and unknowns. Once the student identifies what is unknown in a math problem, he or she is taught to isolate the unknown quantity logically and methodically. I can still hear my teachers yelling at us that we can't solve problems until we isolate the unknown from the rest of the equation.
Does that sound familiar? It should because that's exactly what a successful diagnosis is. You'll hear good technicians call it ``process of elimination,'' but that's just another way of describing the technique of isolating an unknown.
Good math teachers drill students repeatedly on identifying knowns and unknowns, then isolating and solving for the unknown. Likewise, good service personnel always determine knowns and unknowns before they begin wasting everyone's time and money.
For instance, the service writer begins by interrogating the motorist thoroughly about vehicle history. If the driver confirms that his car always starts in dry weather, that's an invaluable known. If the car only fails to start in wet weather, he's nailed another helpful known. (For non-technical readers, wet-start problems are almost always ignition-related.)
When the customer states that his problem only began after his brother-in-law attempted to fix something, it's another important known in our equation. (Regular Tire Business readers know I've screamed for an accurate vehicle history many times in previous columns.)
Meanwhile, good techs have a methodical, sensible way of isolating or pinpointing the root cause of the unknown. In this case, the unknown is why the car won't start when it's wet.
The logical ``isolation'' technique may be nothing more than double-checking whatever the brother-in-law touched on the vehicle. In the other example, it may mean squirting water on the distributor cap with a spray bottle. If the engine stutters or stalls when you spritz the distributor cap, you have isolated a bad cap.
In other cases, isolating the unknown may require a logical sequence or pressure and/or voltage checks-but there is a logical path to identifying the unknowns.
The fact that the overwhelming majority of starters, alternators, engine sensors and computers that are returned under warranty actually test out as good suggests how ineffectively service personnel have been isolating the unknown.
So what good is an English class?
You'd never know it by listening to some of our contemporaries, but there's a structure and a format to speaking any language, including English. Studying a language is an exercise in following structure or form. Following form requires discipline and thought. The discipline can only help condition a prospective technician for the working world.
What's more, learning the language also helps improve a tech's communication skills. One of the most worrisome issues I encounter out in the bays is a good tech who just can't communicate clearly and concisely with service writers and managers-let alone with a customer. How much time and money does poor communication cost your dealership every year?
Last but not least, speaking our language effectively also makes a tech sound like he's worth the money you're charging for his work. As I've emphasized many times in previous columns, you must look and sound the part to earn professional fees today.