New AB2T training site is ‘as good as it gets’

THE new AB2T training academy in Whitburn has been tipped to play a key role in helping to alleviate plant operator skills shortages in Scotland.

The five-acre facility was opened by Cambuslang-based AB2K earlier this year and represents a £500,000 investment. The centre features the very latest plant equipment and offers a range of fully accredited courses including CPCS construction, crane and driver training, PTS rail training, RRV operations, and MEWP training.

Although the centre has been trading since February, an official opening took place earlier this summer when MD John Murphy cut the ribbon and welcomed visitors including customers, suppliers, council representatives, and prospective candidates.

John Murphy (centre) with the rest of the team

John told Project Plant that investment in the academy was essential due to a shortage of facilities to train new operators and upskill existing ones. He explained, “We (Quattro Group) came up here five years ago. We bought AB2000, as it was then, with probably 250 operators. We tried to get people trained up here and there was nothing. We do it ourselves everywhere else as well. I don’t like relying on anybody else; I prefer to do it in-house. This piece of land was available, and I thought we could have a go at it. We started shaping it last year as it had been overgrown for years.”

The site, located on previously derelict land, will allow AB2K’s existing 250-strong operator workforce to keep up their competencies and also help train operators from other companies and introduce a new generation of workers to the industry. At the time of interview, a recruitment process was underway with a view to adding more trainers to satisfy the expanded operator demand. John admitted skilled plant operators, as well as trainers, are currently in short supply – and not just in Scotland.

“In the south we lost a lot of our east European operators back in 2020 because of Brexit and lockdown – and they never came back,” he explained. “It’s very, very difficult. We’re trying to bring people on. We’ve got a trainer there – Jim D’Arcy – who’s 67 and has decided to become a trainer, which is good. He’s an experienced operator. Now because he’s here, we’ve actually found a lot of the current lads are thinking they might have a go at it.

“Jim is the first AB2T employee. He’s ex-forces who went on to drive machines and now he’s here with us. Trainers are in very high demand at the moment because there’s a shortage of them as well. We’re currently interviewing from within to bring on more people. We’re creating job opportunities in an industry where’s there’s a massive skills shortage.

“‘We’re aiming to have 10 full time trainers on the books by Christmas. That’s covering Scotland and the north of England.

“The demand will be limited by the number of trainers. There could be demand for 100 courses, but we don’t have the trainers. It’s kind of like baby steps. We need the centre, then the trainers will come and occupy the centre, and then the people will come and get trained. It’s one thing at a time. It’s working. 12 months ago, this was wasteland. I’ve been associated with this site for a few years. There was a depot across the road; that’s how we knew about it. We said: ‘let’s do something here’. You couldn’t find a better location. It’s halfway between Glasgow and Edinburgh. Go down the M74 you’re in England. It’s a great location. We even have two airports nearby.”

Highlighting the diverse range of people who could benefit from the centre, John revealed that a young female landscape gardener had been in the day before. She wants to learn how to drive a digger and is just starting out on her journey.

With the centre highly visible at Junction 4a off the M8, the hope is that people will be intrigued by what they see. John’s advice to anyone interested is simple – come and have a go.

The training can be as flexible as it needs to be. AB2T, which stands for Able to Train, can also carry out assessments on-site.

“We’ve got a five-acre site, fully passed out for all CPCS categories, and all rail competences as well,” John added. “We have a double classroom set-up. We’re gearing up to do touchscreen testing. Machinery is as per demand. We’ve got 360° excavators, dumpers, rollers. We can bring down a crane. It’s every category. We’re one of only two places in the UK that can do suction truck training.”

The training area has been designed to replicate conditions that are as close as you can get to real life construction sites, including rough terrain and steep inclines. For rail plant training, two 150m-long twin rail tracks have been laid to Network Rail standards, complete with overheads.

“This is as good as it gets,” John stated. “Some training centres around the country are quite tight in terms of space, but here there’s loads of room. Anybody who wants to come and watch to see if they’d be interested can stand back at a safe vantage point.

“The CPCS assessor said it was probably the best in the country. That’s the whole of the UK, not just in Scotland.”

On the day of the official opening, a 90t Liebherr road crane took pride of place in the centre of the site, highlighting the wide breadth of equipment the facility is capable of accommodating. Two of the company’s ‘Mad Vax’ suction excavator lorries were also in attendance, the most recent of which was purchased as part of a £13 million investment in new machinery. Various road-rail vehicles were parked along the twin rail tracks, including a new MEWP and two road-rail excavators.

In segregated areas for digging and backfilling, a selection of heavy plant construction vehicles were placed to exemplify the space that trainees have to manoeuvre. These included two of AB2K’s SANY excavators, a dozer, a large dumper, two wheeled excavators, a smaller dumper, a roller, and another off-track MEWP.

Quattro Group training manager Dominic Harris and AB2T trainer Jim D’Arcy stressed the importance of having modern machines to train on, highlighting the potential problems operators could face if they learned on older equipment before arriving for work on site and having to get to grips with a machine featuring technologies they weren’t familiar with.

One of the highlights of the open day was an appearance by sidecar racing driver Steve Kershaw. The three-time British championship winning sidecar was on display, which is sponsored by Quattro Group.

Steve Kershaw

The day generated positive feedback from a range of plant sector stakeholders, including Lyle Sibbald (regional sales manager at Liebherr Cranes) and SANY UK sales chiefs Brian McGrane and Nathan Donnelly.

If early indications are anything to go by, the site seems certain to be a success. For John Murphy, collaboration and sector-wide engagement will be key. When asked if investing in such training facilities is something he’d encourage other plant businesses to do, he concluded, “It’s easy for us to do it because we’ve got space. It’s not particularly cheap and it takes investment and dedication. We have to invest; we have to bring on the next generation. There’s no point in me having a nice training centre here and somebody else having one down the road, when we could all just work together.”