Challenging perceptions

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Koli Begum, Dobbett Donaldson and Clariacetta Thomas

Angela Youngman investigates how Go-Ahead is working with Transport for London to attract more women to a career spent behind the wheel of one of the capital’s famed red buses

Despite forming 50% of the population, women are still in a minority within the bus sector. Far fewer women than men take up employment driving buses, or becoming involved in operational roles. Reasons for the low take up are not hard to identify – shift work can create problems for mothers, the work/life balance can be difficult and there is an ingrained perception that driving buses is heavy work, more suited to men. Women bus drivers account for just 10 to 12% of the Go-Ahead London workforce.

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Changing such perceptions is essential if a more equitable gender balance is to be achieved, which is why Go-Ahead is working very closely with Transport for London (TfL) to devise initiatives that can effectively challenge such negative perceptions. The Women with Drive programme is attracting a lot of attention among potential female employees – and is leading to a definite increase in the number of female drivers.

“The success of Women with Drive has gone beyond expectations,” acknowledged Susannah Dillon, Head of Apprenticeships at Go-Ahead Group. “We are certainly leading the way in transport as the first bus company to run a programme like this with TfL.”

So what is it about this Women with Drive introductory programme that has struck such a chord with women? Talking to various new apprentices that have completed the programme indicates that a key factor is the simple fact that it is focuses on issues that are directly relevant to women. The sheer size of a bus can be daunting, especially when you are used to driving a small car. The thought of driving a heavy bus through the crowded London streets can be off-putting. It is only when they get into the driver’s cab that women realise that the seat and the controls can be adjusted to suit smaller heights and lighter weights. Having the opportunity to drive a bus in a depot instantly shows that is it much easier and lighter to handle than anticipated.

Shift work is not always compatible with the needs of childcare. Both Dobbett Donaldson and Clariacetta Thomas regarded this issue as a priority and having the opportunity to discuss this with women already in the business during the Women’s With Drive programme made an instant difference, as Koli Begum pointed out: “One of my biggest concerns was how women bus drivers coped when they were the primary carer. They were very positive, saying that things could be worked out. It made me feel you can work around primary care needs, and that the company was willing to accommodate care situations.”

Trying to find solutions to the problems of shift work and the overall life/work balance is not easy, as Go-Ahead recognises. Rotational work patterns together with the need to ensure there are enough buses on the roads at the time required by the travelling public, as well as concerns regarding late night shifts can make it hard for primary carers who need to give time to their children and dependents, as well as having a healthy personal life. Too much stress and worry about the impact of work on family life will affect their work. Go-Ahead Managing Director, John Trayner commented:

“Women do get put off by the thought of shift work, and tied in with that are the issues of fatigue and the work/life balance. We are looking at this for all bus drivers to see what can be done. As London buses operate 364 days a year, 24/7 we are in a position to experiment with rotational shift patterns.

“We have found that many drivers want early shifts, starting at 0400 or 0500hrs in the morning as this gives them more time with their families or to undertake leisure activities later in the day. We are looking more at flexible working, and how we can accommodate their needs.”
He believes that the women-only open days and the Women with Drive initiative are going to make a major difference with regard to the involvement of women within the bus industry.

John stated: “It is a good way of breaking the mould. As soon as we explain how the bus industry works, we find that women are interested. People want to be part of the business and the apprenticeship scheme has made people feel less isolated. The regular call backs, the additional training and guidance gives the apprentices time to talk to their peers and colleagues and deal with problems and issues that arise.

“We have found that there are now far fewer public complaints or accidents within a driver’s first year. The turnover has been much better than anticipated – now less than 10% of those who have been through the apprenticeship scheme.”

The existence of that apprenticeship scheme is another key reason for the company’s increasing success in attracting women into the industry. It appeals to older women, who may be in the process of changing careers or returning to the job market. Such women tend to be looking for long term opportunities, in which driving a bus can provide a stepping stone for future career development. Discovering that they can take up an apprenticeship with training designed for their needs has an immediate appeal.

Caroline Welch, Apprenticeship Manager for the Women with Drive programme, is very positive about the impact it is having on new trainees: “Women with Drive has made a very good start. Women don’t immediately identify with the career opportunities in the bus industry. There is a bit of a stigma about it. It is getting the message out there that you can accommodate all lifestyles with a bus career.

“Bus depot managers have commented that they have seen a major difference in attitudes because the apprentices have a much better level of understanding about the industry. They are more confident, and see the long term opportunities. We do get challenged about the English and Maths which is a requirement of an apprenticeship, but we aim to make it relevant to their work on the buses, and on a personal level it provides academic qualifications that supports them in the future.”

Claire Mann, Director of Bus Operations at TfL, added: “The Women with Drive programme, which we ran in partnership with Go-Ahead, was a fantastic opportunity to work with one of our suppliers to encourage more women to become bus drivers. While the transport industry has a variety of brilliant career opportunities on offer, there are sometimes misconceptions about what they involve.

“This is why we have a dedicated supplier skills team who proactively work with our supply chain to demystify the sector. Doing so can help everyone, especially those who are typically underrepresented, realise they have the perfect skills for the role and may be able to find a dream job where they didn’t expect it.”

Case studies of three of the latest female apprentices taken on by Go-Ahead London highlight their experiences.

Clariacetta Thomas
“Having been at home with the children for a number of years, I wanted to get back into work. ‘Aim4Work’ suggested going on a two week pre-employment programme called Women with Drive organised by Transport for London and Go-Ahead London, which was all about getting women into the bus industry. I did the programme and experienced driving a bus around the garage. The instructors told me I was a natural bus driver!

“I was surprised even with my connections to the industry. My dad has always been a bus driver, and as a child, I sat on the bus with him and went all around London on his buses but there were never any women in the garages. My daughter’s father was a bus driver, but he is now an engineer on the buses. They are both really impressed. When I told my dad I had got a job driving buses, his eyes could have fallen out of his head! He was very taken aback, but is very supportive. He has told me he is very proud of me.

“The introductory course, Women with Drive, was surprising. It was more about customer service and how to do things. They tailored it to be very bus focused. I got to visit depots, talk to people and was helped to go online to apply for the bus driver apprenticeship. I was given a later start date than others on my course because my daughter is only three, and you cannot apply for a full-time nursery place to start in the middle of a term. Go-Ahead London was very accommodating.

“It is hard even now when you have children. Once I am out on the buses, I will be on shifts and you don’t have any choice. Luckily I have a very supportive family.

“My driving instructor, Dennis Morales, is a lovely guy. From the beginning, he made me feel much more confident about what I was doing. We started by getting to grips with the braking systems, how to use it and to stop the bus smoothly without jerking. On the second day, he took me out on the roads around Silvertown and I had to do a lot of left and right bends, approaching junctions and meeting traffic. I was surprised to find that a bend in the road is referred to as a manoeuvre, and that you have to be ready for it much earlier than if you are driving a car. There is no rear view mirror so it is learning to concentrate on the left and right hand mirrors.

“I love driving the bus and see myself doing it for at least three to four years. I want my career to progress in the bus industry, perhaps by becoming an instructor myself or by joining management. I also have an interest in the financial side of the business. Discovering during the introductory course that there are lots of opportunities for career development really spurred me on. It is definitely a long term career for me.

“A lot of my girlfriends are looking for careers or are changing careers and I have told them to look at the bus industry. It offers more than you expect.”

Koli Begum
“Women’s empowerment is important to me and I liked the ethos of the Women with Drive programme. I went to the open day and had a chance to talk to other women bus drivers about their experiences. One of my biggest concerns was how they coped when they were the primary carer of children and they were very positive, saying that things could be worked out if you were tenacious enough. It made me feel you can work around primary care needs, and that they were willing to accommodate care situations and work through it.

“I signed up for the apprenticeship training and assessment. People said it was a waste of time going back to college for an apprenticeship, but it made you realise that you are never too old to learn. I have been the carer in my family for the past 12 years and I discovered I had a lot to offer.

“The assessment was designed to show what you could do. I came dressed up wearing high heels, and found I needed to borrow a pair of shoes in order to drive the bus! I am small, just 4’9” and wear size one shoes, so was being constantly asked if I could reach the brakes.

“I quite like the challenge of driving a big vehicle. There are adjustments you can make to the seat and the controls, you just have to remember the numbers that suit you when you get into the bus.

“When I drove through Hackney where I live, people I knew stared and pointed. ‘It is Koli driving that bus!’ The most memorable part of my driver training was being over confident. I was asked if I could follow the signs for the A13. I said ‘Yes, I can.’ I followed the wrong signs to Stratford and found I didn’t know where I was. But I did get myself out of the problem!

“It is not a masculine thing, anyone can do it. I do have a lot more respect for bus drivers, now that I am doing it and see what they face each day. It can be very stressful but challenging.”

Dobbett Donaldson
“I have always enjoyed driving and that was what pushed me to do the bus driving apprenticeship. The Job Centre mentioned it to me, and I thought it would be something interesting, a new challenge. I was surprised to find that apprenticeships were available as I thought they were for younger people. The Women with Drive programme is aimed at bringing more women into transport particularly bus driving. Some women on the course found it made them more confident.

“I had to do two weeks of customer service training first, at the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London (CONEL), and learned a lot more about what it involved working in the bus industry. I was used to handling customers as I used to work in the prison service. I had to go to the Camberwell depot to do an assessment and interview.

“As an apprentice, there were classes to attend and case studies, and more maths and English. This was the worst part of the training because people felt they were capable of driving a bus so why were these English and maths classes needed. It did feel a bit as though we were going back to school, but I do understand what they are trying to achieve and make it relevant to bus driving.

“There was a lot of things to learn when I started driving the bus. I thought I was a good driver, but was told I was not looking ahead far enough. My trainer was really good, he noticed a lot of good in me and really pushed me hard. On the first day, we had to learn how to check the wheels and controls and then it was straight out onto the road. It was busy, so I had to learn quickly and towards the end of that first session, my trainer said ‘right, we are going through the Blackwall Tunnel.’ I thought ‘oh my God!’ It was a bit scary. When you drive a car through you do not realise how it bends in the middle so driving a single-decker through was a challenge, as I had to pull out and turn slightly when we reached the middle.

“Every time he took me to an ever-smaller road, he was checking to see if I was looking properly. I would just breathe in, look, pray and get on with it. After that training, the test was nothing! Now I am based at Northumberland Park, close to my home. When I got to the depot they took me out to learn the route immediately. I learned two routes in one go – I was very pleased.

“The biggest problem I had during training was the difficulty of getting to the Camberwell depot from my home in Waltham Cross.

“I am going to be a bus driver for the foreseeable future. What I like about the apprenticeship scheme is the way you find you have career options. You discover you can branch out to be a trainer, go into an office or do other operational jobs. My trainer told me I could do a trainer’s job and that does appeal to me.

“My family were very happy for me to become a bus driver, because they know I like challenges. I have recommended the apprenticeship scheme to friends and relations, encouraging others to give it a try.”