We’ve set a target of recruiting 1,000 apprentices in 2019 across bus and rail
There can’t be many occupations that feature more frequently in politics than working on a bus.
Driving, or conducting, has unwittingly evolved into a symbol of gritty normalness.
Sir John Major famously tried, and failed, to become a bus conductor in his youth – apocryphally because he failed the exam but, according to more credible accounts, because at six foot, he was too tall.
More recently, both Sadiq Khan and Sajid Javid have spoken about being the sons of Pakistani bus drivers. And Sayeeda Warsi, the former Conservative Party chair, has often told supporters that she’s proud to be a bus driver’s daughter.
So what’s so special about driving a bus? Well, for one thing, you’re providing a crucial mode of social inclusion – almost a quarter of households in Britain don’t have access to a car. Particularly for retired people, or for young people newly independent from their parents, buses are often the only option to get around.
As a driver, you’re at the heart of communities. It’s sad to say, but with loneliness in Britain at epidemic levels, buses can fill a role beyond simply getting from ‘A’ to ‘B’. A ComRes study last year found that nearly a third of Brits have caught a bus simply to have some human contact.
Recognising this, my company, Go-Ahead Group, is reshaping the role to go beyond driving skills and focus more on customer service. It’s vital, for example, that drivers have awareness of hidden disabilities, of child protection issues and of multi-cultural communication.
I’ve spent my entire career on buses – I began as a trainee at London Transport and I now oversee a business running buses across the UK, and as far away as Singapore, carrying two million passengers annually. And yes, I have been a bus driver.
This National Apprenticeship Week, we’re opening a new state-of-the-art facility in Camberwell, South London, to train a new generation of drivers. We’ve set a target of recruiting 1,000 apprentices in 2019 across bus and rail – we’re the only transport company delivering apprenticeships across both.
It’s a multicultural industry - out of our most recent intake of bus drivers, 65% were from BAME backgrounds. One in five were women – a proportion that’s improving, although I’d like it to be higher. Training takes between 12 and 36 months – with engineering, technical, business management and administration roles among the apprenticeships as well as drivers.
It’s pleasing to see that our apprentice drivers in training range from the age of 18 to 65, with many coming to the programme after years of working in other sectors, completely unrelated to transport. One of our apprentices is a 44-year-old former accountant who previously worked in the City, another is a 62-year-old who previously worked in security.
As Nusrat Ghani, the Transport Minister, highlighted in her evidence to the Transport Select Committee’s bus market inquiry last month, it is important that we spend much more time thinking about the role and the responsibility of bus drivers, and the responsibility of bus companies, like ourselves, towards our drivers.
Six out of ten public transport journeys are by bus – they’re far more widely used than trains, particularly by people on lower incomes. So it’s vital that we invest in training new people to run these services.
Funding for local buses has been squeezed in recent years, as local authorities struggle with austerity. We’re determined to show that private operators, working in partnerships with transport authorities, are part of the solution. And we’ve made the point to Government that we believe buses, like trains, aviation and walking, deserve an overarching national strategy.
It’s good to hear that politicians value transport careers. And I’ve been encouraged to note that buses are attracting much more Westminster attention than they did a year or two ago. Who knows – maybe our 2019 intake of drivers will include a future Prime Minister or Mayor of London.
David Brown is Chief Executive of The Go-Ahead Group