John Trayner: How the apprenticeships levy has helped deliver new drivers for London’s buses

This article was originally published on Politics Home. 

A lot of people assume driving a bus is straightforward. But in London, one of the world’s busiest and most crowded cities, it takes skill, determination, patience and concentration to keep a double-decker bus on the move.

As well constantly anticipating hazards, drivers need to squeeze a 10-tonne vehicle through ever tightening road space while responding to passengers’ queries and staying bang on schedule.

That’s why at Go-Ahead London, we’ve set up an academy in Camberwell that trains 700 apprentice bus drivers a year – by far the biggest apprenticeship school in the UK transport industry.

Each apprentice embarks on a year’s carefully structured course – combining classroom training, virtual reality, stints out on the road and then further, defensive driving skills. The teaching isn’t just about how to drive a vehicle – it includes learning about British values, of respect for those with different beliefs, and about the PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy.

It wasn’t, initially, our intention to offer apprenticeship training in-house. But the structure of the Government’s apprenticeship levy persuaded us to do so. The levy requires us to pay 0.5% of our wage bill – which is a large amount for a business like ours which employs more than 6,500 people. To claw back that money, it has incentivised us to radically re-think, and upgrade, the way we invest in people.

We began offering in-house apprenticeships in 2018 at Level Two standard – that’s equivalent to five good GCSE passes. For each driver, we get £6,000 back from the levy. As a whole, our parent company, The Go-Ahead Group, takes on 1,100 apprentices a year – making it one of the top 20 providers in Britain.

Bringing apprenticeship training in-house was one of the best decisions we’ve made. It’s paid off not only in financial terms – but in changing our business for the better, too.

Drivers who join us as apprentices stay with us for longer. Previously, 40% of trainees left within two years – we’ve got that down, now, to 13%. Customer feedback has been positive – those who’ve been through our apprenticeship programme get markedly more commendations from passengers. And they have fewer scrapes too, with a 50% lower rate of knocks and minor accidents.

On top of all that, it’s helped us change our mixture of people. Bus driving has always been a male dominated profession. An increasing proportion of our apprentices are female – still not enough, but we’re working on it. And two thirds are from ethnic minorities - helping us to build a workforce that reflects the London communities we serve.

We’ve had apprentices of every age ranging from 19 to 64. We don’t just take young people – almost a third are over 50, and they come from a huge range of backgrounds: we’ve got a former professional footballer who played in goal for Nigeria at the Women’s World Cup on our books, plus former teachers, social workers and office workers.

I began my career as an apprentice on London’s buses 45 years ago so I know, first hand, what a great career it can lead to.

Every few months, we have graduation ceremonies at which another group gain their qualifications. It’s not been without its challenges – it took significant administration to set the scheme up, and there’s a good deal of red tape that needed to be cut through.

Nevertheless, the apprenticeship levy has been an effective stimulus for us. With the support of Transport for London and the National Apprenticeship Service, we’re very proud of the people we’ve trained and of the essential service they provide to Londoners.