After going through a period of struggle early on in life, Larry Witherspoon decided to move from his hometown in Cleveland to Atlanta to start anew and focus on giving back. When he got there, he was astounded by the number of people he met who were struggling to get ahead. What really caught his attention was the number of young people among them.
“I didn’t live in that experience, but my aunts and uncles lived in the projects and I didn’t understand why the police were always around,” Witherspoon says.
Because of this, he knew what these kids were going through, and he saw it every day.
“I knew this is what I should be doing and I wanted to help these people,” he says.
Thus, the Automotive Training Center was born, helping to train at-risk youth to become entry-level technicians and have a fresh start. In the future, Witherspoon is now looking to start a program tailored to quick lube technicians.
Here’s how he capitalized on opportunities in his life to give others a second chance in theirs.
Getting a Second Chance
Surprisingly, Witherspoon had never worked at a shop before founding the Automotive Training Center.
“I have a pretty unique path to what I do now,” Witherspoon says.
When he had the opportunity to move to Atlanta in 2012, he went from private-school kid to living in an urban center. In his new surroundings, he came across so many people who were at high risk for ending up like he almost did.
Through his new spiritual journey in Atlanta, he was introduced to a church that would help him restore his faith and help him give back to those in need. For over 50 years, this church had performed car repair services for those in need. They even had their own facility to complete the work. And for three years, Witherspoon volunteered on the side at the car repair facility. This is when he came up with the idea.
Giving a Second Chance
In early 2014, Witherspoon hit the ground running and started the Automotive Training Center, working long nights using the church’s facility. Soon after, Witherspoon met Shawn McHargue, who was working as an entry-level technician at the time. McHargue grew up in a similar environment that Witherspoon did. Together, they decided to become co-founders of the training facility, putting their focus on training at-risk youth in the community. Now, they just needed a game plan.
Witherspoon started doing his research on how to make their vision a reality. Through his search, he found out about a youth automotive training center that was started by a dealership group in Florida. What started out as an empty building turned into a 30-plus year operation that had taught thousands of automotive students. Witherspoon hopped on the next flight down there to take a tour of it himself. It was then that he knew he could do this.
Initially, Witherspoon wanted to start the center as a for-profit training facility. But once he applied for grants, he really had everything he needed to buy the necessary tools and a trailer. The church even donated a truck to the operation to help get them started. On top of this, both of their past experiences working for nonprofits helped guide them.
“Because of the grant funding, it opened our opportunities up,” Witherspoon says.
About four years ago, however, Witherspoon and McHargue still worked full-time jobs and made developing the facility a second priority. Witherspoon says to be able to successfully run this non-profit, they knew they had to leave their full-time jobs and make the training center their main priority.
Helping the Youth
Witherspoon and McHargue made the automotive program tailored to at-risk youth—ones who, according to Witherspoon, have situations and backgrounds that make them at risk for being homeless and getting in trouble with the law. And one of their main sources of students is corrections. The rest all came from word of mouth.
“It’s important to take a hold of what you are doing now versus letting it happen to you,” Witherspoon says.
Each year, the program graduates roughly 15 students. They have intentionally small class sizes of three students to provide in-depth training in a short amount of time. First, the students are taken through a four-week introductory program, depending on the students’ automotive skills. After that, it’s an eight-week entry-level program learning the basics of auto repair.
Grant funding helps secure all of the necessary equipment and tools for students to use, and the program runs out of a for-profit shop. The money from the repairs covers half of the costs, and the grant covers the rest with the help of private donors.
“What’s unique is we have students working on customer work,” Witherspoon says.
They perform oil changes, change tires, run vehicle inspections, fix brakes, along with learn what Witherspoon calls “soft skills,” like professionalism, customer service, and how to be a part of a team.
Now, Witherspoon and McHargue are trying to start an advanced training program for students to undergo four to six months of additional, higher-level job training.
Helping the Industry
Looking at all of the schools in the area, Witherspoon and McHargue realized there were no automotive vocational schools. Not only did they see an opportunity because of the tech shortage, it also gave them a huge opportunity to get involved in this type of training.
“We fill a very, very unique niche,” Witherspoon says. “We have filled that void on a small scale.”
Over the past six years, the Automotive Training Center has trained a total of 151 students. And through its partnerships, the program has placed 80 percent of graduates into full-time, entry-level positions. Four of these students have been employed by one of its partnerships, Grease Monkey, and another at a local express lube.
In the future, Witherspoon is looking to get more into the quick lube space, opening up a facility next to his center and running a business through it. Not only will this open up more opportunities for quick lubes, but will help provide additional training. He says for some students that are under 18 years old, or who simply need more time with supervision, the quick lube facility would be the ideal place to train them further.