Gimmick or game-changer? Go North West’s driver recruitment campaign divides opinion, but if it succeeds others will follow

 
Nigel Featham (centre) and his bus ‘pilots’

 
Talk to any bus bigwig and they’ll say that the challenge facing them is driver recruitment.

Taking an innovative approach to attracting bus drivers is certainly not a recent phenomenon. As far back as the mid-noughties, First Bus were trailblazers in deliberately targeting Polish citizens in their own country and literally bringing them over to the UK. They created a legacy in which driving buses is seen as an extremely popular and respected choice of profession for those emigrating to bus companies on these shores. Many other organisations have worked tirelessly in recent times to attract female drivers, through more targeted recruitment campaigns and by de-bunking myths about bus driving.

A day out accompanying me on one of my mystery shopping expeditions will, though, confirm that driver recruitment is as big an unsolved issue as ever. Performance remains patchy in parts with cancellations attributed to driver shortages. Many drivers that I encounter are instinctively friendly but, on probing, lack product knowledge and confidence. It’s fairly obvious that they are inexperienced and that in some cases they’ve been recruited and trained too hastily in order to get them out on the road.

Within these challenging times, the high profile driver recruitment campaign carried out by Go Ahead’s North West subsidiary has not gone unnoticed. Having won the first tranche of Greater Manchester bus franchise tenders, the company is clearly determined to successfully mobilise the new sectors – their winning bid is reputed to be audacious and the consequences of failing from a reputational perspective mean they’ve no alternative but to think big and, arguably, bold in terms of their resourcing plan. Fair play for taking the bull by the horns with such conviction and ambition.

Go North West’s dynamic campaign takes a new approach to drivers and positions them as pilots. Their adverts play on airline jargon and the drivers are dressed in swanky pilot uniforms. The campaign has, however, raised eyebrows within the bus industry with several wags finding it patronising and demeaning towards drivers, whilst others applaud its fresh style. I oscillate between a mix of wincing and occasional admiration for their bold style. It’s certainly brave of Nigel Featham, the Go North West’s MD, who – let’s just say – isn’t on the periphery of the campaign. His presence in some of the images, one in particular, sees him right in the centre of a triangle of his pilots, suited and booted and standing out like a James Bond character, does at least illustrate that any new recruit can stand shoulder to shoulder with the managing director.

There’s also a picture of what we assume are a group of drivers with bright yellow t-shirts emblazoned ‘Feel the need for a reasonable speed’ and the aviation-style logo used for the campaign. Everyone has both arms up doing thumbs up signs and there’s no one looking more excited than the hugely-experienced Featham, centre-stage in front of them.

You sense that the rest of the bus industry is watching to see how Go North-West’s ‘biggest ever driver recruitment campaign’ (as they describe it) pans out. Will it resonate with those the company wishes to recruit?

You sense that the rest of the bus industry is watching to see how Go North-West’s ‘biggest ever driver recruitment campaign’ (as they describe it) pans out. Will it resonate with those the company wishes to recruit? Last week, I spoke to a senior bus bod with significant experience in Manchester and his view was interesting: “All that matters is the headline pay rate, nothing else. All those that are being tapped up are interested in is earning enough money in their houses in Rochdale or Heaton Park and other generally deprived parts of Greater Manchester to pay their rent and put a roof over their heads and food on the table. If they wanted to be pilots they would have chosen that career path. It’s an entirely different market and can’t be dressed up as anything comparable. You’re not travelling the world, instead you’re going back and forth between Manchester and Bury.”

He has a point, albeit the video does state that earnings can be as high as £30,000. Maybe that statement alone has enough power, without the other razzmatazz – it’s difficult to tell.

Another Mancunian commented to me: “It’s a bit of a sub-conscious reminder to those who might apply that they didn’t have the opportunities or ability to become a pilot, which is generally regarded as a more glamorous and highly lucrative career”. Hmm, we’re in sensitive territory here.

Another bus insider suggested that the industry should not keep trying to recreate the role of drivers, pretending it is something that it isn’t. It’s a minefield and one wag claimed this approach was akin to turning drivers into circus-act performers.

Go North West is in an invidious position – trying something new is necessary because the current challenge of recruiting new drivers feels unsolvable. Maybe rebranding the role of drivers is required – not dissimilar to the way in which perceptions of bus travel have been changed by luxury interiors – leather seats, Wi-Fi, plug-chargers and Ray Stenning-style branding inside and out. We know that this has in places changed the public’s view of buses and that mindsets can be shifted. So too, a new re-brand for drivers may have similar success.

However, pretending drivers aren’t drivers does remind me of cricket’s attempt to be cool and trendy. It thought that the long Test Matches were boring and created a new competition called the Hundred, which lasts two and a half hours and involves newly created teams that no one has any affinity with. The television commentators are encouraged to use hyperbole – every ball bowled or shot hit is made out to be utterly amazing and even the most one-sided match is the greatest ever. ‘It’s cricket but not as we know it’ is a strapline oft-used for this game in which the sport’s administrators are ashamed to be associated with cricket and try and convince themselves it isn’t. The chap who dreamt up the competition phoned me and said “to be honest Alex, we don’t want people like you and your mates at these matches”. So too, the following day, the chair of the English Cricket Board called me to hammer home this point. I suspect Go North West aren’t averse to traditional bus drivers still applying, but sometimes, it feels that, like cricket, the industry as a whole is embarrassed by the concept of bus driving and too intent on dressing it up as something it isn’t.

The Go North West video is certainly eye-catching. It features an immaculately attired driver with tie and lapels, taking off sunglasses and a voiceover telling us – “These nerves are made of steel baby… I’m on the route to greatness. Now this is the life…life in the bus lane. I’m the king of the road, master of the 561… this is greatness.” The narrator has a film star, striking tone – as far removed perhaps from your average bus driver in Salford, but there is then the admission “this isn’t my real voice” so, pleasingly, it would seem that it isn’t trying to take itself too seriously.

The campaign looks so slick, impactful, well-produced and glitzy that it feels somewhat out of sync with how I imagine it is like booking on in a depot on a wet February Monday morning in Manchester

The challenge with driver recruitment is indeed the ‘reality’. The campaign looks so slick, impactful, well-produced and glitzy that it feels somewhat out of sync with how I imagine it is like booking on in a depot on a wet February Monday morning in Manchester. To a cautious applicant a quick Google search tells the tale of the longest trade union dispute in the history of Unite that occurred in Go North West in 2021, as the company tried to make cost savings it felt were necessary after acquiring the business. In a world far removed from that portrayed in the recruitment adverts, Unite claimed in February that 80 CCTV cameras were introduced that year in the Queens Road depot and that poor Featham has a screen on his desk, Big Brother-style, solely linked to the camera monitoring the area where drivers are allowed to take smoking breaks. I’d be amazed if this was the case, but conspiracy theories do abound during times of industrial unrest.

Meanwhile, any conversation with any bus driver the length and breadth of the UK will reveal the reality of under-invested bus depots, municipal canteens and mess facilities, long shifts, unrealistic running times, unsympathetic and uninspiring depot allocators who are the first face a driver sees when they start their shift, buses with defects that haven’t been fixed, grumpy customers, anti-social behaviour, delays and a line management structure that means you won’t actually ever see your boss unless you’re in trouble. I’d say that in all probability, given their track record of high quality, professional stewardship of transport businesses, that a driver has a better chance of happiness working in Go Ahead than most other companies, particularly as their North West business is small enough for its leaders to be visible to every driver, providing they have the conviction to be among them, once the camera has stopped rolling on this campaign – which I’ve no reason to doubt will be the case.

The obvious challenge is around the expectations of the role when the new drivers are inducted, and this is where the local management team have a lot to live up to. I was reminded of the challenges faced by bus drivers on four days’ mystery shopping last week as part of my Great Scenic Journeys business. One bus driver had to contend with an angry customer who nearly missed his bus because the bus stop flag had been so damaged it was almost invisible. Another driver shied away, not unreasonably, from dealing with abusive vagrants making use of the £2 fare for a three-hour journey from one deprived location to a big city, whilst abusing fellow customers. Another one of our mystery shoppers had his bus diverted into the depot because an elderly driver, believed to be drunk, crashed head-on with the bus. Meanwhile, the driver of one open top tour bus had to miss out the climax of their journey across a bridge in one major city due to significant traffic congestion – much to the dismay of customers. I also travelled on two buses where the driver had to deal with ticket rolls being spewed out of his faulty machine. All in a day’s work!

Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham must be purring at the energy, conviction and speed at which Go-Ahead, the first to be awarded the bus contracts, has thrown themselves into recruiting drivers

Perhaps we should laud Go North West for its fresh approach to a complex issue. Greater Manchester mayor Andy Burnham must be purring at the energy, conviction and speed at which Go-Ahead, the first to be awarded the bus contracts, has thrown themselves into recruiting drivers . He may be impressed at the different approach being taken, not just to recruit drivers but to attract customer-focused talent from outside the sector. He might feel that the traditional image of bus drivers represents a bad old days of combative commercial bus operations in his region and be excited by Go-Ahead’s bold new approach.

A real Go-Ahead USP is its devolved structure and approach, enabling subsidiaries to flourish by having autonomy and capitalising on their knowledge of their own market conditions and enabling campaigns such as that in Manchester to be conceived and delivered locally. The talented duo of Christian Schreyer, Go-Ahead’s CEO, and Martin Dean, who leads the regional bus division, will be watching how it pans out. Even if a less bold and more nuanced approach might rest more comfortably with many, this could, just could, be game changing if it works. I wish Go North West the very best – the industry needs the Manchester launch to be a success and I suspect it probably will be.

 
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Alex Warner has over 30 years’ experience in the transport sector, having held senior roles on a multi-modal basis across the sector. He is co-founder of recruitment business Lost Group and transport consultancy AJW Experience Group (which includes Great Scenic Journeys). He is also chair of West Midlands Grand Rail Collaboration and chair of Surrey FA.

 
This story appears inside the latest issue of Passenger Transport.

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