John Trayner: how a tax move transformed London’s biggest bus firm

John Trayner,  MD at Go-Ahead London, on how a hard-headed decision to join the Government’s apprenticeship scheme transformed the business (and they have fewer prangs). Originally published in the Evening Standard.

People don’t always realise that driving a 10-ton London bus around the most congested city in Europe is quite hard work. You need a rapport with customers. There are rigorous safety guidelines. You need to be in the zone, and to avoid distraction.

Back in 2018, Go-Ahead London introduced an in-house apprenticeship scheme for bus drivers. It wasn’t an act of charity – it was a hard-headed financial decision, prompted by the Government’s apprenticeship levy.

The levy requires all large businesses to pay 0.5% of their annual pay bill to the taxman. For a big employer like us, that runs into millions of pounds – and the only way to claw some of it back was to become an employer provider for apprenticeships.

The levy, which we saw as a straightforward tax, pushed us into acting – and I’m glad it did. Because I can honestly say the benefits have stretched well beyond a financial payback and have included significant surprises – in customer service, in retaining employees, in diversity, industrial relations and in safety, too. It’s had a positive impact on our parent company, The Go-Ahead Group, too.

As the largest operator of London buses for Transport for London, we employ 6,500 drivers. And in 2016, there really wasn’t anybody doing bus driver apprenticeships – we had to design and set up our driver curriculum from scratch to meet the standard.

There was a lot of red tape and it took two years to get off the ground. We were well aware of the risks of getting it wrong – another bus company, Nottingham City Transport, had been publicly named and shamed by Ofsted for falling short of apprenticeship standards.

Our apprenticeships are Level Two - which are equivalent to five good GCSEs passes. For each driver, we get £6,000 back from the levy. This year, we’ll take on 700, making us one of the biggest apprentice providers across any industry in London. As a whole, our parent company, The Go-Ahead Group, takes on over 1,000 a year, making it one of the top ten apprenticeship providers in the country.

For the first eight weeks, newcomers are in the classroom. Then they go out on the road. A few months later, we call them back for supplementary training – at the six-month mark, there’s a risk of overconfidence, so we drill down on some defensive driving.

The scheme involves taking people through GCSE English and maths, and teaching basic life skills. For some, including older applicants, that’s a big deal – it means people who previously may have struggled with household budgets are able to manage their lives better, and it builds both loyalty and job satisfaction.

Our apprentices are also taught about British values – including tolerance for those with different views or beliefs – and about the PREVENT counter-terrorism strategy.

So what have the benefits been? First of all, people are staying longer. Previously, about 40% of our trainee drivers left within two years, often deciding they’d got their licence to drive a Passenger Carrying Vehicle and they’d take it elsewhere, or the job wasn’t for them. We’ve cut the proportion who leave to 13%.

In terms of diversity, 17% of our apprentices are women, compared to 11% of our drivers overall. The transport industry needs to do better and we want to get that higher – our apprenticeships manager and her deputy are both women, as our 70% of those who assess our apprentices.

About half of our drivers were already from BAME backgrounds. Within our apprenticeship program, that’s running at 67%, which reflects the customers, and the communities, we serve.

Part of the curriculum is to encourage drivers to engage with passengers – to acknowledge people when they get on board, and to handle any queries. Customer feedback has been remarkable. The number of positive comments – or commendations – about drivers has shot up. One of our apprentices got 19 commendations in his first year. Another got three in a week.

The most unexpected upside has been safety. Drivers who have been through apprenticeships are 50% less likely to have a scrape with another vehicle – despite the fact that they’re newly qualified. That’s about more subtle factors than driving instruction. It’s because we’re interacting with them more. The garage manager talks to them more often, they’re under regular progress review and we spot people who are having difficulties more quickly. It’s a major benefit for the business – accidents, even minor ones, are very costly.

Overall, I’d go so far as to say the apprenticeship programme has changed our relationship with our drivers. It’s gone from being acrimonious to harmonious. Diversity from the scheme has altered attitudes across the whole business – making the workplace environment more tolerant, open to change and welcoming.

Not all of our apprenticeships are newcomers to driving – I’ve got an airline pilot working for me, and a number of former black cab drivers who have switched to buses since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

My advice to any employer considering introducing apprentices is that there will be some mountains to climb in administration, and in dealing with Government departments you’ve never heard of. But go for it. I’m a convert – it’s been a positive programme with benefits I’d never expected. Without a doubt, it’s changed our business for the better.