AYT Institute Trains New Auto-Mechanics

(Left to right) Delonta Hawkins, Wesley Hamilton, Jennifer Gibbs-Phillips, and Gary Zhu stand in front of a 1976 Camaro in the auto repair facility of the AYT Institute at 1110 U St. SE in Anacostia. Photo: John Muller.

“Let me show you how serious this is to me,” says Wesley Hamilton, a 32-year-old veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, in an auto repair facility at 1110 U St. SE in Anacostia as he lifts up his right sleeve to reveal a biceps and forearm covered in car-themed tattoos. “This sparkplug was the start,” beams Hamilton, executive director of the AYT Institute, an organization that provides technical training to men and women seeking careers in the auto-mechanic industry. 

Throughout the past winter Hamilton, a master automotive technician, spoke at numerous community meetings throughout Ward 8 and canvassed small businesses and employment training centers with flyers promoting AYT. Opening two years ago in a building just off Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue that in the 1970s was the Weights, Measures and Markets Branch of the Department of Economic Development and in 2011 was proposed to be a medical marijuana facility, AYT is outfitted with administrative offices, traditional classrooms, a study hall, library, and a large garage with car lifts.  

A variety of programs and classes offered at AYT run in length from three to six months to a year. The goal, according to Hamilton, is to meet students where they are in their careers and to assist them in receiving the necessary licenses to advance. “We can go as far as the student wants to go,” Hamilton says. Students are accepted on a rolling basis. To date AYT’s Anacostia location has graduated 40 mechanics versed in transmissions, brake systems, fuel pumps, and the ins and outs of both domestic and foreign cars.

“Studies show that in body shops across the country the most qualified auto-mechanic is about 65 years old,” Hamilton says. “There’s a great need to backfill that, not just in our area but around the country. Your labor rate is going to be somewhere between $60 and $100 an hour.” 

Pupils at AYT represent a range of life experiences, from veterans using their military benefits to cover class costs to returning citizens. With the assistance of Jennifer Gibbs-Phillips, an education consultant who served as the principal of Coolidge High School and assisted the formation of the Washington Middle School for Girls, AYT is working with partners from nearby Community College Preparatory Academy and the Office of the State Superintendent of Education to enroll more students. 

Hanging around AYT on a recent weekday was Delonta Hawkins, who served in the US Navy for six years. As a student at AYT for less than three weeks, Hawkins says, “I’ve learned things about cars I should have known, like how to change the oil and how to rotate tires. Before coming here I had never touched the inside of a car. I just thought you turn the key and push the pedal and it goes.” Hawkins, who worked in intelligence with the Navy and maintains a security clearance, says he hopes to work as a bus mechanic for Metro after graduating from AYT. 

History of AYT

Although less known than the Excel Institute, founded by former Washington Redskins lineman George Starke, AYT and its founder serve as equal inspirations and examples of reaching back to help others. The training institute is an outgrowth of Gary Zhu, who immigrated to the Washington area from the People’s Republic of China more than two decades ago. After founding AYT Auto Group in 1993 in Northeast Washington as a master automotive technician, Zhu saw a steady need for qualified mechanics and in turn started the AYT Institute in 2007 to begin the process of launching new careers in the auto industry. 

AYT maintains full-service repair shops in the heart of Chinatown and in Ivy City on West Virginia Avenue in Northeast Washington, as well as locations in the Maryland suburbs of Capitol Heights, Clinton, and Upper Marlboro. 

Although Zhu maintains a low profile, the lobby of the Anacostia center is lined with awards and certificates from the city honoring his work. More than a couple of mayors and elected officials are pictured embracing him. Zhu says that his personal mantra and that of those who graduate from the AYT Institute is, “We take miles of pride in understanding your vehicle from bumper to bumper.”

For more information on the AYT Institute and how to enroll, visit their offices at 1110 U St. SE or go to www.ayti.us/ or www.ayti.org/. You can also call 202-797-1008. 

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