A national shortage of qualified bus drivers has been affecting bus services across the country, including services run by Stagecoach in Kent and East Sussex. The combined impact of Covid-19 and Brexit has resulted in record numbers of unfilled jobs in the economy - which has led to recruitment challenges for businesses and organisations in the transport sector. Joel Mitchell, Managing Director at Stagecoach South East, outlines the cause of the driver shortage and explains what the company is doing to tackle the issue and return to a full service as quickly as possible.
Over the past two years, we have experienced challenges that we have never seen before - it's nothing I could ever have imagined dealing with in my career. Firstly, the arrival of a global pandemic in early 2020 which put the country (and the world) at a standstill. But in amongst the terrible times, it demonstrated just how important buses are to keeping our communities connected. I could not have been prouder of the role that our teams played in keeping our buses moving and making services available for key workers. It gave me great pleasure to see the positive comments many of our customers fed back about how well we had adapted and kept people connected during the really tough times of lockdown.
Whilst I remain fiercely proud of my team, I am frustrated that we are not currently able to offer communities that we serve a full service. Many of you may be familiar with the national driver shortage - which is affecting both the transport and logistics sectors - as it has been widely reported in the news. There is an estimated shortfall of 4,000 bus drivers across the UK, with a significant driver and engineer vacancy gap here in Kent and East Sussex.
As well as the continuing effects of Covid-19, we have also seen a number of our drivers choosing to leave the business for a wide variety of reasons. It is true that some of our colleagues are opting for other driving opportunities - such as HGV and van driving - but that is only a small part of the issue. The pandemic has influenced some people to make different choices about their futures. An example of this is that more of us are seeking to take early retirement – this has increased to around 55% and has contributed to short-term issues with delivering the services that our communities need. However, we do have some positive news to share as we work to recover our business and tackle the challenges we face.
Bus driving remains an attractive profession, with flexible working, guaranteed hours and promotional opportunities; it can be a long-term stable career. We’re pleased to have seen that we have no shortage of people wanting to come and drive our buses and in recent months, we’ve received a promising number of applications for our driver and engineering roles and now have a strong pipeline of candidates ready to start new roles at Stagecoach South East.
Whilst this is extremely positive news, it will take a little bit of time to get all of our new colleagues behind the wheel in in the workshop. Firstly, even before training can start, every new driver has to have a licence issued by the DVLA. Processing delays has seen new drivers waiting between 8 and 12 weeks to receive their licence. Thankfully, the situation is improving but there are still significant delays.
Once our drivers have secured their new licence, they can enrol on our free industry-leading training programme – which covers everything from health and safety to route learning and customer service. Ultimately, the process of appointing a new driver and getting them ready for the road can take up to 12 weeks.
The majority of our bus services are running normally, but we have had to make the difficult decision to reduce our timetables and cancel journeys in some areas. We will continue to keep our customers informed through our website and social media channels. To keep up-to-date with the latest developments, please visit stagecoachbus.com or follow us on Twitter (@StagecoachSE
Given the challenges (many of which are outside of our control), it is impossible to predict how long this situation will last, but we expect it to improve as our new drivers complete the final stages of their training. I understand that this situation has caused disruption for many of our customers, and I am deeply sorry for all of the inconvenience. I have always been proud of our strong performance and the important role we play in keeping our communities connected and I am extremely frustrated that we are currently unable to run all our scheduled services.
We will continue recruiting new colleagues to make sure that we have a strong pool of bus drivers and engineers available at all times. If you, or someone you know, is interested in an opportunity here at Stagecoach South East, please visit stagecoach.com/careers
Looking forward and towards a brighter future, there are strong commitments in place for strengthening public transport within our local communities. Government plans are in place for significant investment in green sustainable transport, and this has been further supported as part of new Enhanced Partnership plans with local authorities. Set to come into force by April next year, the plans are aimed at providing a core focus on delivering a long-term commitment to ensuring public transport remains a reliable and integral part of our daily lives.
I would like to thank all our customers for their patience and our fantastic team of drivers and support colleagues who are working under some difficult circumstances right now. Please be kind to our team when you see them and please be reassured that we are doing everything we can to get services back to normal as quickly as we can.