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Understanding Bus and Coach Drivers – and Keeping them Happy

The Trapeze Team | December 20, 2016

How many types of driver are there? While every human is of course unique, if you had to categorise drivers into identifiable groups, do you think you could? And if you could, how many would there be?

A little while ago we at Trapeze conducted an exercise where a group of us sat down to consider ‘driver types’, specifically from an interaction requirements point of view. The result was the first draft of what we called Driver Personas.

The personas we identified are not intended to be an exhaustive list, and by definition they are of course a collection of generalisations drawn with very broad strokes. However, our theory was that if we could get closer to understanding the different ways that operators interact with their drivers – and which interactions are deemed most important for each driver type – then we may be able to find more effective ways for operators to deliver those interactions.

Interestingly, when we reviewed our Driver Personas with a group of bus and coach operator managers, something unexpected happened: the managers told us that overwhelmingly the most common driver type was the one we had labelled The Family Man.

However, before we knew it, our Family Man persona evolved: he no longer had a family and wasn’t even necessarily a man (there are many female drivers of course): the Family Man became the Modern Driver; a somewhat broader group for whom work is an important part of life, but one which must fit around other critical elements. For many in this group, the most important element is of course family, but it could be whatever the driver views as important.

For this most common of Driver Persona, the most important element is not family, but rather flexibility. In short: for many modern drivers it is critical to be able to fit work around home life; not vice versa.

The Modern Driver and Generation X/Y

During the aforementioned discussion with the operator managers it became apparent that the Modern Driver persona was the embodiment of a recent trend in the workforce – he (or she) was showing traits associated with Millennials (also known as Gen Y) and Generation Xers.

While there are no precise dates for generational cohorts, most demographers and researchers define Millennials as those born between the early 1980s and early 2000s; and Generation Xers born between the early 1960s and early 1980s.

We have previously written about Millennials (Gen Y) and Generation X from the point of view of understanding passenger expectations. However, when it comes to drivers, we need to consider these cohorts from an employer’s perspective, since they are the workforce of today and tomorrow.

When employing Millennials, PWC suggest we can expect less loyalty and regular changing of roles; and value for work/life balance over financial reward. Meanwhile, Corporate Rewards suggest that those wishing to manage and reward Millennials should focus on teamwork, working relations, flexible working and positive feedback. Similarly, Generation Xers tend to change jobs frequently, with work/life balance considered a cornerstone of the cohort, symbolised by the coining of the phrase “work to live; not live to work”).

Given these motivations and traits, and also considering that many organisations in other industries are struggling to attract suitable talent, is it any surprise that so many bus and coach operators face challenges retaining drivers?

Clearly there is a significant challenge here, but how do we address it? The first step is to understand the scale of the issue.

The “two-year attrition hump”

We have previously referenced data that almost half of new bus drivers leave after 12 weeks. However, one revelation from our meeting with the operator managers was the widespread recognition of what we came to refer to as the “two-year attrition hump”.

Essentially, all managers we spoke to recognised that drivers are extremely susceptible to leaving during the first two-to-three years, but once beyond that point the attrition rates reduce significantly. Essentially, the rule is: keep them for three years and there’s a good chance they’ll stay much longer.

Some operators attempt to address this hump through the use of bonds which must be repaid in part or full if the driver leaves before a certain point. Though clearly this has a practical use, it’s not addressing the underlying issue: Can we influence drivers to want to stay longer?

If we accept that our Modern Driver persona is presenting some of the traits associated with Millennials and Generation Xers, does it then stand to reason that we can use those cohorts’ motivations to find ways to better engage them in order to beat the two year attrition hump? Let’s consider how this may be possible.

Disengaging Millennials and Gen X

Research suggests that teamwork, working relations and positive feedback are likely to be motivating factors for these groups. However, the modern world doesn’t make them easy to deliver:
Bus companies have become huge operations with thousands of drivers – and all while working with shrinking margins and intense scrutiny on cost control.

As a result, many of the regular daily operator-driver interactions – from interviews and schedule adherence data, through to telematics as a performance evaluation tool – can be seen as corrective or even intrusive. Even technology such as CCTV, which tends to benefit drivers in terms of personal safety, is often viewed with suspicion and distrust.

Think about your own daily driver interactions: How many do drivers perceive as negative? This is all perfectly understandable, but the result is a world in which our drivers don’t feel loved or valued; where positive feedback is hugely outweighed by negative, and where working relations are naturally strained.

This inevitably impacts on how drivers view their employers – and on how likely they are to stay.

Similarly, other significant motivating factors we identified – work/life balance and flexible working hours – don’t sit comfortably with a modern bus operator, for whom evenings and weekends are of course key service times. And what happens when they get through training only to find that the prime shifts are already allocated to established drivers – who, by the way, also earn more than the new arrivals?

Is it all a lost cause? Or is there more we can do?

Technology for Driver Engagement

As we have already outlined, recruiting talent is a struggle in any sector – but perhaps especially so in the modern bus industry. However, if we accept that our Modern Drivers embody some traits of Millennials and Gen X, perhaps we can do more to engage them in order to get them past the two year attrition hump.

Some of the more important traits here relate to teamwork, working relations, positive feedback, flexibility and work-life balance. Let’s take a few minutes to consider how technology could impact here.

Teamwork

One of the concepts we at Trapeze are extremely excited about is ‘Gamification’ as a means to increase driver engagement. The basic idea is to allocate fun rewards for driving performance and career achievements. Obvious examples might be career distance travelled (using goals such as from home to New York/the moon etc.), or having driven every vehicle in the fleet.

However, we believe a better approach might be to combine performance-related Gamification with a teamwork element; for example, placing drivers in teams based on the week or month of induction, and then running a team-based league table. Not only would this target driving engagement; by using teams we hope to add a degree of collaboration to what has historically been a fairly solitary role.

Positive Feedback

It is well understood that giving employees positive feedback is incredibly important. However, many bus depot managers are under huge strain – often not even having time to do the jobs they were employed to do. Driver interviews and corrective interactions are clearly extremely important so we can’t just stop them to make time for more positive interactions, but what if we could improve the administration process to free up time for all interactions? We specifically created Traffic Office Admin for this purpose; to streamline the process of managing meetings with drivers, enabling managers to find time for positive feedback.

Working relations

We believe strained working relations are a symptom of the way bus drivers are perceived in this country. If drivers felt better appreciated then wouldn’t they be happier in their work and think better of their employer? But how can we create happier drivers in what is an incredibly competitive industry with already fine margins? You could start by taking a critical look at the technology in which you have invested: how much of it is making drivers’ lives better, and how much is helping to weed out the few rotten apples in the bottom of the barrel?

Perhaps we need to approach technology investment from the viewpoint of how it can help drivers. A good example is Tower Transit, who report increased driver happiness due to transparency of operations after installing Trapeze’s driver self-service system.

Flexibility and Work-life balance

This is of course a difficult challenge to solve, especially in the case of flexibility, since there is a clear requirement to provide bus services at the times the public needs, rather than when drivers wish to work. However, technology can offer drivers greater flexibility in how and when they can access the information they need; whether that be shifts and holidays, or even route and vehicle training via a virtual training package such as NOVUS DT.

It is also worth noting that in many instances it is an oversimplification to say that modern drivers demand flexibility. If we consider workers with families, it is often not the case that they are inflexible; rather, they cannot be flexible at a moment’s notice. Flexibility can be achieved where required, provided it is accompanied by good notice and clear communications – things that it is perfectly possible for technology to provide.

A Better Future for All Drivers

This is a complex issue, and there is no magic bullet for driver retention. However, it is clear that by understanding driver motivations we can do more to meet their expectations. It is also clear that many of those expectations can be met by integrating technology solutions that address driver interactions in a more positive and helpful manner.

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About The Trapeze Team

The Trapeze Team are here to bring you news and information from Trapeze Group (UK) and the public transportation industry.

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