Driving the future

Why has recruitment into the coach industry proven difficult? The Editor argues that, until the industry projects a premium image of itself, its huge value to society will not be apparent to those in the market for a career

The problems faced across the passenger transport industry in its battle to recruit and retain drivers aren’t easily resolved.

“I believe the coach and bus industries are still faced with a legacy image of ‘the bus driver,’” says Mark Williams, Editor of Bus & Coach Buyer and a veteran of the industry for 35 years. “Bus driving is still associated with ‘the job’ as it was in the 1960s, and its status has not really recovered, much less being seen as a career. Likewise coach drivers, who should be viewed through the same lens as train drivers and, dare I say, even airline pilots. The responsibilities are very similar.

“The fact is, the industry itself is very poor at communicating its exemplary safety record, the huge investment it makes in vehicles and training, and the flexibility and comfort it can now offer, and this is at the core of the recruitment issue.

“Until coach travel is in the public consciousness as a premium way to get around, this will reflect on the careers within it. Some 30 years ago, one of the industry’s own leading lights said coach travel was a ‘Cinderella industry.’ In my view, it still has some way to go before it can slip on the crystal slipper and emerge from the shadows.”

The past few years have seen drivers’ pay rise significantly to compete with other industries, and coach and operators have made huge adjustments to working patterns to reflect a changing workforce:

“While I know that most employers have significantly enhanced the hourly rates they pay, they need to consider hourly pay itself as a policy issue. Even so-called ‘blue collar’ workers earn salaries, not hourly rates which, in this changing world, now suggest casual labour and zero-hours jobs, not a career which involves significant training and responsibility for the safety of 50 or more people.”

It’s inevitable that coach driving involves some antisocial hours and a flexible working pattern, he says: “There’s no hiding the fact that coach driving may not have universal appeal for this reason. The hospitality industry has had similar challenges in recent years, and like passenger transport is having to face them head on. The passenger transport industry needs to make its case with candid honesty, find employees who will champion driving careers and – to target the careers market – better identify industries which compete for the same demographic of the workforce,” said Mark.

“Coach driving suits socially-active people who value self-reliance and don’t need or want someone micro-managing every working hour of their day. In many ways, coach driving and even bus driving offer a degree of independence. Drivers are the faces of the passenger transport industry. They meet their customers, and have a direct and very significant influence on customer satisfaction; the best of them create happy people. Those aspects of the career should be emphasised, as so many working people in ‘jobs’ face the polar opposite, working out of sight in productivity silos.”

Mark believes that there are rich seams of employees to be mined: “Empty-nesters, in particular, have the flexibility of time to accommodate coach driving as a second career, and there are a great many of those mired in casual work which gives little reward beyond the pay packet. Together with groups such as former armed services, and indeed hospitality workers, they form a recruitment demographic which may well transfer to the coach and bus industries.

“I know many bus and coach operators who express the opinion that the focus on getting PCV driving licences as some kind of hurdle is off-target; most adults in the UK can drive vehicles, but only a proportion have the character to deal with the public…it’s that element of the career that is not only harder to teach, but actually delivers the travel experience customers want. Customer service delivers your profit.”

The fragmented nature of the coach industry makes the task of repositioning the status of driving careers difficult: “There are upwards of 3,000 small businesses in the leisure transport sector, who face a shared problem which demands a campaign beyond the means of any single company. Somehow, the industry must continue pool its energies, perhaps through its trade associations, to elevate driving careers to where they belong; as serious, long-term, and respected working people.

“Although the coach industry has consolidated since the pandemic, and the driver recruitment challenge has dissipated a little, do coach and bus operators believe that they are ready for a rapid expansion, as the UK tries to meet its Net Zero targets? If the government demands more and better public transport, will the industry be able to meet the challenge head on, or will it lurch into another staffing crisis? I fear the latter.”

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