Students in driving seat
A pioneering scheme helping bus drivers to learn in the workplace is being introduced across Britain.
The UK has a shortfall of 5,000 bus drivers and by the year 2014 the figure may reach 30,000, according to the Confederation of Passenger Transport UK, the bus operators' trade association.
The scheme, run by First Group in a joint initiative with the Transport and General Workers Union , started in January 2002 at the Basildon bus depot.
It began with the creation of an education centre inside the bus depot where drivers and their families could be taught by lecturers from the local adult community college. The centre was a specially-dedicated room with five internet-connected PCs, a scanner and a printer with some start-up funding from Essex learning and skills council provided.
The idea was taken up on the company side by former bus driver Chris McCormick who is now divisional manager for the south-east. He said that work-based learning opportunities were a good way of making bus driving more attractive to potential recruits.
"It has improved staff morale, cut employee turnover and given the individuals the opportunity to develop themselves and be promoted in the company," he said. The scheme has won no less than five training awards.
The bus industry loses a lot of drivers - in the late 1990s, staff turnover was running at 30 per cent a year. In an effort to improve retention, the First Group and the Transport and General Workers Union tried making it more attractive to work for the company.
Since the scheme started more than two years ago, most of the 165 drivers have taken part in some form of learning in the centre - information technology, word-processing skills, guitar lessons, Spanish for holidays, English, mathematics and photography.
Many drivers have earned GCSEs, national vocational qualifications at level 2 (equivalent to GCSE A to C) in road passenger transport, the European driving licence and certificates in customer care and personal safety conflict management.
John Large, 61, who left school aged 15 with no qualifications, has achieved English GCSE and is now studying for AS-level in English literature at Basildon college alongside his eldest granddaughter Samantha, 18. "My life was built on the fact that I had no qualifications,'' he said.
"It makes me feel good to have a GCSE."
He added that some of the other drivers at first teased those who took part.
Andy Lines, 39, gained IT qualifications which helped him win promotion to vehicle allocation supervisor. Another driver, Gail Gisby, 41, was promoted to driving instructor after brushing up on basic maths.
Kenyan-born Salim Slim, 30, has passed a national test in English and is now planning to do a series of access to education courses before studying for a degree.
Colin Beckett, 57, a TGWU representative, says the initiative has helped raise morale, reduce absence through sickness and lower staff turnover.
Five drivers have passed national tests in English and maths since enrolling at the centre.
Stephen Smith, the depot's operating manager, has created and maintains the scheme's lifelong learning website, which keeps employees abreast of new developments.
The scheme has been so successful that it has been rolled out to another 29 depots nationwide and now involves 30 per cent of the company's drivers.
Now the plan is to relocate the centre in the depot so that it can be used by the public as well as the drivers and their families. Essex LSC will give the company pound;30,000 to help develop this initiative.
Clare Hannah, the bus group's learning and development director, says the company hopes to give 40 per cent of the drivers access to such centres by the end of the year.
"It benefits us as a company because it raises basic skills levels and also the ability of our employees to learn," she said.
"It encourages people to look at work differently, take different avenues perhaps and try for that promotion that they would not have done before because they lacked the confidence."