Maintaining competence

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It’s not all about looks, but Lothian always ensures its fleet is in top condition, and has developed an ethos amongst its staff that it is keen to pass on to maintain those high standards. JONATHAN WELCH

Jonathan Welch speaks to ALBUM host Lothian Buses about its engineering apprenticeship scheme

There has been a lot of focus of late on driver recruitment and how to overcome the shortage across the industry, but it’s important not to forget that the bus industry is more than just its drivers. Behind the scenes, engineers are vital to ensuring that buses are turned out for service every day, especially at an operator like Lothian which prides itself on the smart fleet it is known for. And those engineers just don’t appear by magic, or walk in off the street ready-qualified to maintain everything from seats to suspension.

In an age where vocational training seems to have become the poor relation when it comes to school leavers’ perception versus an academic progression to university, it feels like apprenticeships are slowly regaining a foothold, especially as the bus industry starts to get to grips with the new challenges that decarbonisation brings, and the new skill-sets that go hand in hand with it. We sat down with Lothian’s Engineering Director Colin Barnes and Chief Engineer Dylan Dastey to hear more about how the company is working to ensure it has the right people with the right skills and right aptitude to keep its legacy fleet on the road as well as turn the corner with new technology.


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A good grounding

Colin, who is now in charge of Lothian’s 700 vehicles and 235 engineering staff at seven depots, explained that he had started as an apprentice many years ago (“I’m not telling you how many!”) at Go North East, working his way up to workshop manager, then moving to a role with a local authority before returning to Go North East as Area Fleet Engineer and subsequently Engineering Director. He joined Lothian around three months ago. “I started as an apprentice. I’ve done everything from greasing to cleaning to fuelling. I’ve done every job, right up to engineering director,” he explained. “I’ve been under buses jetwashing them in winter, getting dirty and wet. I’ve done supervisory and managerial roles; I’d say being a supervisor is hardest, because you have to make the transition of being on the shop floor but still have to answer to management and keep staff happy. I think it’s important to give people lots of support as they move up to supervisory roles. You have to look after your people.”

It’s maybe not something that most apprentices would be thinking about as they begin their training, but as Colin explained, he and many other engineering managers around the country have started on the shop floor and worked their way up, their apprenticeship providing a grounding for a career which covers much more than just mechanicing, and one in which they find themselves having to make ever more important decisions that can affect staff and the business.

“I also think you shouldn’t go for a job until you’re ready for it, and having a couple of years in each role as you work your way up is the right way for succession. It gives you experience and understanding.”

Dylan had a similar progression, having started as an apprentice before joining the shift rota and gaining the experience which led to his promotion to a supervisory role. Assistant Depot Engineer was his next position, in charge of a number of different workshops before moving up to the role of Chief Engineer in 2021. “I’ve worked with most of the staff here over the years, and been able to build up a good relationship with them,” he explained, talking about his experience of moving up from the workshop floor through supervisory roles to managerial level. “You won’t always get on with everyone, but because I’ve been there and done the jobs I’m asking people to do, I think people respect you more for it. You can build on the relationships you’ve made with colleagues across the company, and understand what they’re going through on a daily basis.”

Recently arrived but carrying plain white livery is a Volvo BZL electric double-decker, which has been in use on routes around the city since early April. Electric buses bring new challenges for engineers and apprentices, but also new opportunities. RICHARD WALTER

Benefits of apprenticeships

Turning to the more general issue of apprenticeships, Colin said that they are vital for any industry. “They are our future,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what age you are, we don’t discriminate here. The key is developing home-grown talent. We train and nurture our apprentices, and show them the Lothian way. If you show them that they can progress within the company, and invest in their training, they will stay with the company and make the business sustainable. And it means you don’t have to try and bring in people from outside and re-train them to do things our way. I’ve always thought of Lothian as one of the best, we pride ourselves as maintaining high standards at all times. If you have that culture and desire for quality from the start, it can only push the company forward. Our apprentices are vital for that, and we know we’ll have people to fill roles higher up as they progress.”

Not only that, but the bus industry is changing rapidly, and being able to recruit and mould apprentices can help to support that, said Dylan. “We still don’t know which way the industry will go when it comes to decarbonisation, but we can develop the apprenticeship programme as that changes and develops.” Dylan’s own background in electrical engineering before he joined the bus industry has put him in a good place to deal with the influx of new electrically-propelled vehicles. “For me, it’s interesting to be going back to what I started doing when I left school at 16.”

“We’ve been diesel-heads for many years,” added Colin. “But what’s next? To start an apprenticeship now, looking towards a time when the diesels will all be in a museum, it’s all new for everyone and there’s a big learning curve for us all, not just the apprentices. It’s all very exciting.”

New opportunities

I wondered whether the move to cleaner drivelines might help attract a new demographic to bus engineering apprenticeships. “It’s half and half,” explained Colin. “There will still be a need to maintain things like brakes, steering and suspension, but at the same time when you take away the engine and gearbox, the dirty bit and the fuel, it’s all going to be very clean and use laptops. It becomes a technical apprenticeship, doing the diagnostics on the electrical side. I think that makes it better and more appealing for anyone.”

“It also opens up other career paths going forward,” Dylan noted. “It makes it easier to join other industries, the railways or windfarms for example. Those paths were always there, but in the past would have required more training to get into. There will be a lot more transferable skills.

“We need to change the message now that’s going into schools, and make sure we’re getting interest from an early age so that people know what we can offer, and that it’s not just a case of learning to work on the vehicles. It opens up lots of other avenues. When I first started, if you did an apprenticeship here and wanted to move elsewhere, you were probably still going to be working on engines.”

“Not that we want them to leave,” laughed Colin. “but it does make an apprenticeship more attractive to have all of those avenues available.”

Lothian and its subsidiaries pride themselves on smart fleet presentation, regardless of a vehicle’s age. RICHARD WALTER

Changing landscape

Looking at how the company itself will have to adjust, I asked how Lothian is preparing for the switch away from diesel. “It’s a big move,” explained Colin. “We’re preparing for it now, we’re at the start of the journey for our fleet, and we have a few years to complete the training so that our staff are ready. And it’s not just one-off training, it has to be continuous, not just when the new vehicles arrive. For our apprentices, that means visits to manufacturers and suppliers, but for our staff too, who will be doing the training first so they understand the new vehicles.”

With that in mind, Dylan has been tasked with setting up a comprehensive training programme over the next three years to help the company make the transition. One important aspect that he has identified is the need for staff to become familiar with new fleets from the start through ongoing familiarisation. “We’ll be working with our training providers, such as GTG which we use for apprenticeships, and tie that in with specific electrical training courses,” he said.

I asked when the tipping point might come towards a very electric or hydrogen-focused programme. “We have to think that there are still a lot of mechanical components on an electric or hydrogen bus,” Colin observed, “so there will always be a need for that side of the training. I think there’ll be a natural progression as more vehicles are delivered, and even more so as those vehicles start coming out of warranty. There’ll always be a need for the mechanical side.”


Dylan explained a bit more about the process of recruiting apprentices. “GTG carry out the recruitment. We advertise through our own communications channels, and we tell GTG what our requirement is, whether its mechanics or coachbuilders. The advertisement goes to different colleges and on GTG’s website, and they deal with the applications. We had around 200 applicants this year. They’ll do a skills and aptitude test and whittle it down to the final candidates. If we’re looking for 10, we’ll interview around 30.

“Once we’ve made our decision, they’ll start the course, which lasts three years. They’ll carry out six blocks every year here and at college, and if there are any extra courses that we think might be useful, such as electronics, we might add those as well. Right now, it’s still very much mechanically-based but we’re gradually expanding the amount we do around electric buses. They’ll also do manufacturers’ courses at the same time. We’ve got some people at ZF in Nottingham at the moment, and we have some ZF staff on exchange here as well to see how we work.”

And gone are the days of very strict demarcation of trades of old; all of Lothian’s apprentices are simply either ‘mech-elec’ trained, to be able to carry out a wide variety of work, or coachbuilders who maintain the smart appearance that the operator’s fleet is known for. Each year a mix of the two are taken in; for 2023, three coachbuilder apprentices will join at the company’s Seafield depot, and eight mech-elecs spread across its depots. Speaking about the former, Colin commented: “There’s a lot of knowledge and skill, but the people will retire eventually, so we need to make sure we pass on those skills and attitudes to our apprentices to keep our fleet looking good.”

No vehicle should go out with damage, the sign of a quality operation. And despite its high standards, Lothian’s engineering costs remain relatively low as a percentage of revenue. JONATHAN WELCH

Ongoing programme

A total of 16 apprentices are currently working in the business, which will rise to 27 when the new cohort of 11 arrives in August, and more expected to join the following year. “Within four years, we will have nearly 40 apprentices,” said Colin. “We will continue that programme, as apprenticeships are vital.”

Is there such a thing as an ‘average day’ for an apprentice, I asked. “There’s no such thing as an average day in a bus company, ever!” laughed Colin. “There’s so much to learn and so much variety.”

“Each year of their apprenticeship is planned around what they are doing at college,” explained Dylan, “and we try to match job cards to what they’re needing to do, so if they’re concentrating on steering for example we’ll try and give them steering jobs, but of course we can only give them what work comes in. We make sure we give them a complete portfolio of work.”

As apprentices progress, they are also able to gain greater autonomy to carry out jobs by themselves, with Lothian’s experienced engineers checking their work afterwards. “For the first year, they will have a mentor, then as they progress into their second year they have a bit more leeway. By the end of the third year, they should be able to do most of their jobs themselves, though we’ll always check their work,” he explained.

At the end of the three year apprenticeship, Lothian offers a guaranteed job to its apprentices. “You shouldn’t take on apprentices with no job for them afterwards,” Colin said. “We look at our age profile and how many people we expect to retire, and then take on the number of apprentices that we expect to need in four years’ time, so that we don’t end up with a skills shortage when they do. If you work hard, have the right attitude and listen, there’ll be a job at the end of it. We will give them all the training and knowledge and pay them, but the apprentice has to do their bit as well. They need to want to learn.”

And it’s not just for school-leavers. Of last year’s cohort, Dylan explained that 11 were aged between 16 and 18, whilst the remaining five were aged between 21 and 35. Colin added that with the move away from the impression of diesel engines to new cleaner technology under the bonnet might also help to attract more women into engineering apprenticeships; among the current apprentices at Lothian, there is just one woman, a figure he wants to see increase.

With over 80% of Lothian’s supervisory staff having come up through apprenticeships in the last 20 years, it’s a clear sign that the company’s policy of ensuring it has the right people in place to allow for progression and to maintain its high standards is working. “We need to get the message out to schools that an apprenticeship is a good alternative to university,” Dylan said.

Colin agreed. “There shouldn’t be a stigma against not going to university. You can earn money as you’re learning, you’re not in debt and if you stick at it, you’re guaranteed a job and can earn really good money after it. And Lothian is willing to invest in further training too.”

Electric vehicles will broaden the range of skills needed by apprentices, though traditional mechanical abilities will still be required too. RICHARD WALTER