Stuffy, traditional and facing extinction. Why should young people join the bus industry, and why should those who still have a choice decide to stay? Alex Warner offers his view
Firstly an apology to Arriva’s bus big boy, Kevin O’Connor, for inadvertently suggesting that he rather than I am 45, as opposed to 40 in my ‘Travel Test’ with him last month (PT151). Not that our Kev has complained – it’s just I’ve been feeling guilty ever since. To be honest, I’ve been dwelling on my day with him a lot, sleepless nights coming to terms with those rare positive, few hours when I felt buoyant about 2017 and beyond, when I was overblown with the commercial acumen, enthusiasm and innovation he and his new recruits are bringing from outside the bus sector. It was in stark contrast to some of the murmurings of disillusionment I am picking up on from other young-guns right now which I can’t get out of my head.
As we all know, we’ve got a bit of a problem with the 30-45 age group in the bus sector as it is – the missing generation – who suffered in the gap between deregulation and the big owning groups finally setting up proper grad schemes. It is, though, this generation that is approaching a career crossroads – not yet half-way through but if they stay much longer then they could be here for life – the longer you stay, rightly or wrongly, the less appealing your CV to those judging whether you can make the jump to another sector. Kevin O’Connor made the leap at the perfect time and he could make it again, now he has tried and succeeded in another sector. But, today’s bus young guns are approaching decision making time and I fear many of them are wondering whether to stay.
The whisperings I am picking up on are a gradual disillusionment with where the industry is heading. They are not accusing individuals or organisations, it is just a recognition that for all the fresh-faced, innocent efforts they have made, the harsh reality is that they are pushing against almost impossible headwinds of a sector that is naturally in decline, through the socio-economic factors that we all know have long been conspiring against buses. They talk to outsiders and get quizzical looks around the benefits of pursuing their entire career in a sector that might seem a busted flush.
Last week, I recommended to a hoity-toity, thirty-something in rail that he go for a bus role I was recruiting and his reply was: “Why would I want to do that, you divvy, Alex? Buses are dead, yesterday’s industry” Of course, this kind of elitist, turned-up nose attitude of rail professionals, who think they are Premier League footballers is nothing new, but it still shook me nonetheless.
Sadly, there is a lack of self-help within the bus sector. A lot of up and coming young leaders despair when they attend industry meetings or forums and look around and see some of the dyed-in-the-wool, uninspiring attitudes of some of the old farts. That’s a complaint not exclusive to the bus industry – I’ve worked in all parts of transport and in logistics and I’ve rolled my eyes and shaken my head in many meetings, but when you are immersed in an industry where everything is against you, then it can soon be doubly debilitating.
If they aren’t feeling down as it is, then some of the corporate politics and structures that are foisted upon these young bus professionals are even more painfully frustrating. Even subsidiary MDs aren’t, in many places, able to make the most basic decisions around fares or network tweaks, whilst every other month, their local experts immersed in the community, the commercial wizards, are shunted out into some central/group HQ, where they are no good to man nor beast.
Then, there are whole working weeks spent on conference calls, going through a dashboard of metrics, or spending the entire month writing PowerPoint presentations telling people what they have been doing rather than actually getting on and doing things themselves – all to massage the egos of their superiors who think that by putting in place these draining and dull procedures, they are doing their own jobs properly and instilling great corporate governance.
Then, of course, the frustration is magnified by these scrutinising bosses or committees getting their power kicks or trying to prove an attention to detail, by deliberately picking up on one small figure or indicator and doing it to death in an intimidating manner. Bullying some might call it, but it does happen, in a few places. No wonder no one gets out and travels on buses anymore – the priority is to get the slides looking good – your boss won’t thank you for getting out and about and talking to customers and staff.
As if all this isn’t bad enough, what hope is there with bus franchising on the horizon? How the hell are we going to attract entrepreneurs and commercial whizz kids to work in a framework that for them will be as dull as dishwater? Well may you claim that all that will happen is for them to work on the other side, but can you really picture bright, hungry innovative youngsters in dated, musty municipal offices, surrounded by folk in brown suits and paperwork that requires you to fill in a form and get it signed off just to order paper-clips? Can you see them playfully designing quirky and wacky branding for the side of buses or cutting edge digital marketing campaigns, or indulging in “blue sky thinking”, let alone playing around with a network plan to get more bums on seats? Sorry, but I’m more likely to be able to picture Crystal Palace avoiding relegation from the Premier League right now. Think it is hard attracting commercial managers to the bus industry now? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Gone are the days of Brian Souter types sitting in McDonald’s restaurants all over the country watching buses coming and going to check loadings and help plan out new routes to make more money – because he and his shareholders and staff all had a vested, personal and financial interest in doing so. I see the quandary on my doorstep in Surrey right now – where the council and its dwindling resources have tweaked a network to make it even more challenging and unappealing for bus customers. The saviour operators, First and Rotala, who came in and bid for services to save them in the run up to Christmas, could do a far better job if left to their own devices and with their commercial savvy.
It’s a vicious circle and it is real, as we all know. Weekly, I’m asked to find talent for the transport industry and in bus, it is a genuine challenge. Bus operators not unjustifiably have a picture in their mind of a sharp-suited, bright, hungry and dynamic youngster, straight off The Apprentice, ideally from an under-represented group, because let’s face it we’re sick of being surrounded by white, crotchety, male baldies and we need to better mirror the demographics of the diverse communities we serve.
If they are skilled network planners, fully trained schedulers (Trapeze or Omni preferably), and can unpick ticketing software and also know how to deal with trade unions, then that is essential too. All for well under £35k and that’s on a good day. It’s the same for more senior roles too – come and manage bus depots with literally hundreds and hundreds of the most miserable, militant staff, with buses that are 20 years old, coming out of workshops with standards in disrepair and bankrupt cultures “all for £45k – you’d get up to £100k running a logistics depot like that”.
I’ll find you someone, I will, through unstinting zeal, spunk and a dogged refusal to accept defeat and I will kill myself in the process because this kind of challenge drives me more than anything else. But as an industry, it has never been more difficult to attract from outside. It is also why those vital commodities, those specialists, such as engineers, network planners and schedulers, that can have such an indelibly, transforming effect on the daily performance and profit of bus companies, know their worth in the market and the payback they can provide. But who can blame their employers for shifting the pay scales, when margins and budgets are so tight and their lords and masters are so scrutinising in every monthly KPI meeting? It’s difficult to visualise the return that this investment would provide, even if gut-feel suggests it’s a no-brainer.
Where do we go from here? I’m not suggesting we’re in a “bring out your dead” scenario just yet, but we are treading water currently. I wish there was some kind of new, alternative bus product that could be seen as our saviour, a demand responsive type model perhaps that would seem like really working and at the very least help get the mojo back of our young bus industry managers.
That perhaps is fanciful thinking on my part, but in the short term, senior leaders in the industry need to be more sensitive, more self-aware and put themselves in the shoes of the youngsters. A few, but nowhere near enough, companies invest in coaching and mentoring programmes for their young folk. Others do little in the form of providing support – more intent on delivering a continuous undertone, veiled or otherwise, threat to their job security if short-term KPIs aren’t met.
And there’s always another re-organisation round the corner, a constant looming threat to a young industry professional trying to bring up a family, pay off the mortgage or just survive. Of course, it’s like that in many, if not most other industries, but this is a sector that has the additional burden of being perceived to be in systemic decline, where sex appeal is low and where, with devolution creep, is at risk of having the fun sucked out of it.
A bit of savvy amongst those at the top of the bus industry, some empathy and conviction to look out for youngsters right now, recognising that some of them are nearing that D-Day mid-career, “do I stay for life?” decision point, wouldn’t go amiss. Otherwise, we’ll never retain or attract cutting edge talent and only bus spotters, coffin dodgers, the unemployed or unemployable, or just socially inept nutters and freaks like me will see this as the hip place to hang out.
This article appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.
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