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Lothian ensures that no more than two drivers are with one instructor at a time. RICHARD WALTER

Driver recruitment and training is more important now than ever. Jonathan Welch finds out how Lothian Buses is dealing with the subject as it prepares to host the annual ALBUM conference

There will be lots of eyes on Lothian – which is already a company that attracts more than the average amount of attention thanks to its smart fleet and municipal status – at the end of April as it hosts 2023 ALBUM (Association of Local Bus Company Managers) Conference. Like most operators across the UK and beyond, Lothian Buses and its subsidiaries Lothian Country and East Coast Buses have been affected by the post-pandemic changes in the way people live and work, along with the effects of Brexit, both of which have had effects on the labour market, including drivers. Operations Director Willie Hamilton and Training & Recruitment Manager Pat Toner explained how Lothian has handled the situation, and what it is doing to help recruit and – crucially – to retain drivers.

“We’re turning the corner,” Willie explained. “The troubles across the industry have been well documented over the past year but we’re currently making service again. The shortage did affect us in some areas, and we were not able to meet our full service for a while last year. That was like a knife to the heart for a lot of people in the business; it’s not what we do. We’re through that now.


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”We took the opportunity to really look deeply at ourselves. The world has changed and with that we had to make some significant changes as well,” he continued, adding that ensuring drivers are retained is just as vital, otherwise the hard work put in by Pat and his team is wasted effort. “We’ve worked very hard on our employee offering. Retention isn’t as easily quantifiable as recruitment but conversations we have on a daily basis with colleagues can have an effect.”

“Some of the things we’ve introduced such as different rotas have had an effect,” added Pat. “It’s made drivers feel more valued. We’ve seen a slowdown in the turnover of staff since the beginning of this year. It’s well down compared to previous years. The offering that has been made by the management team in terms of shifts and pay is clearly making a difference. It makes my life a lot easier as it means we’re not putting drivers in at one end and losing them out of the other just as quickly.”

The company uses its training buses as mobile adverts; this one carries Lothian City colours but also advertises driver jobs at Lothian’s East Coast Buses subsidiary. RICHARD WALTER

Changing situation

We learnt very fast that people’s priorities changed during the pandemic,” continued Willie. “A lot of drivers were on furlough for a long time, and it gave people a chance to re-evaluate what was important to them. People wanted to spend more time with their families and more weekends off. That’s difficult for us, at the moment weekends are our best-recovered days. People are wanting to go out and do things with their families – and our drivers are included in that.

“We’ve done a lot of work and engagement with our trade union to try and get things right. One of the most successful things for us has been the introduction of a four-day rota for our double-deck drivers. On top of that, we’ve introduced a health plan for all of our colleagues with HSF and a discounted family & friends travel pass.”

What could the industry do, I asked, to help promote driving as a job. Willie, who started as a driver himself, said: “It’s a great job, there’s so much you can get from it. One of the key things is attracting more young people to the industry. It’s something we need to focus on this year.”

Pat added: “It’s one of the most secure jobs. The industry’s always going to be here. Sometimes younger people come in and then after a few years think the grass looks greener somewhere else. That’s why it’s important that we try and retain our staff and look at rotas and everything else.

“We’ve had to start looking further afield when it comes to attracting staff. Before the pandemic, we used to get 150 to 200 applications per month. Now we’re having to advertise to try and get people in. We’re knocking on doors that we never have before,” he explained, adding that the company has been working to try and help Ukranian migrants into work, among other avenues it has explored to help those stuck in long-term unemployment.

The job continues to appeal to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, Pat said. “We had one driver who had been training to be an airline pilot, and some HGV drivers are coming back to us now,” he said. “Our drivers make the job look easy.”

I noted that having a smart fleet must aid driver recruitment and retention. “That’s one of those things that isn’t quantifiable but does make a real difference,” said Willie. “The tools that we give people to do the job are important. The philosophy here has always been about investment in our product, which includes the buses. It’s all related, and why we need to get everything right. The bus, the cab, the driver’s seat, they’re all things that affect people when they’re using them for seven or eight hours a day.”

The message is hard to miss thanks to Lothian’s bright yellow training livery. RICHARD WALTER

Something for everyone

“As an industry, we’re good at working together and combining best practice. I don’t think there’s one single answer,” said Willie in response to the question of whether there’s any easy ‘big hit’ that might help the industry. “At the moment, we’re all in the same boat across the country. I think the big thing is to be open to change. The world has changed, and as an organisation we have to be open to that and try new things. A few years ago, the idea of a four day rota would have been a very difficult conversation. But now, we’re seeing that it’s working for a lot of people.”

Another new idea has been the introduction of a ‘retirement rota’ for the many long-serving drivers who have reached retirement and want to take a step back, but without giving up something which has been a part of their life – and social life – for many years. “They can retire and come back on a three-day rota. It’s been really successful for us. We’ve seen people reach retirement age and want to take a step back but not give it up completely. For us to facilitate that has been a big success. I would hope that anyone coming into the industry would see that and see that someone who has been here for maybe 25 or 30 years wants to come back on a three day rota, that says a lot.”

Pat agreed that there are benefits both ways. “It’s very hard for drivers who have had that routine for decades to suddenly have it taken away from them,” he said. “It can make a big difference to them.”

For those coming in at the other end of the scale, though, what would be Willie’s advice? “Go for it!” was his simple and instant answer. “I joined in 2010 as a stop-gap after leaving the army. I’d done a few other jobs before I came here after the army, and thought I might go back. I came here for six months to see what it was like and 13 years later, I’m still here. If you like structure and like to know what you’re doing, that’s one of the advantages. You don’t always get that structure and ability to plan in other places.”

“Most companies only ever advertise for drivers, and people only see it as a driving role,” added Pat, “but they forget about the career progression. There are opportunities for people looking for a career within every bus company.”

Lothian has found itself having to be more pro-active when it comes to recruitment since the pandemic. RICHARD WALTER


So what does the training process actually look like once a recruit comes through the door? “We revised that last year to help get people through as quickly as possible. We do a mass assessment day, then anyone who is successful will be interviewed on the day and sent for a medical, so we’re investing in them from the start. Once they’ve sent off for their licence, we give them a study app for the CPC module, so we’re investing more in them, and then once they get their licence back we can test them and can start with driver training. Depending on outside factors, that process can last from two to six weeks. They then usually pass their test within two weeks, and are handed on to the garage trainers for garage training,” explained Pat.

“We’ve cut down on the number of people on a bus with an instructor too,” explained Willie. “Before we might have had three or four trainees on a bus, now it’s a maximum of two to every instructor. We average between 10 and 12 hours for someone to pass their test. The success has shown in the first time test pass rate.

“Of course, it’s not just about learning to drive, and we invest a lot of time in garage training, showing them things like the routes and how to understand rosters, and make sure it’s with the right people who have the right skill-set to teach them. It’s a different skill to teaching them to drive.

“The time spent making sure they’re well trained pays dividends in the long run. If they go out and they’re flustered or unsure of what they’re doing, they’re more likely to make a mistake or to leave altogether. It’s important to make sure they’ve been given the best training possible, Pat’s spent a lot of time developing our training programme.”

That training programme naturally also includes an ongoing raft of CPC courses to help keep drivers up to date and ensure they remain engaged with training after their initial induction, and which is seen as a vital component in the ongoing development of drivers.

With a headline salary of £32,000 for drivers, a comprehensive training programme and the change to newer, cleaner buses which is likely to feed through into both recruitment of new staff and retention of existing ones, Lothian seems to be in a good position to continue addressing the issues the industry faces, helped by the enthusiasm of the likes of Willie and Pat whose passion for their roles serves as an outstanding example of what the company can offer, and where a driving job can lead.