With talk of driver shortages and issues with retention, it is sometimes too easy to overlook one other, equally important human component of getting vehicles out each morning, and with the added responsibility of ensuring that they do not return care of a breakdown lorry: Skilled engineers.
Lack of them has long since reached crisis point for some operators. Those competing with nearby large employers in the engineering and manufacturing fields that act as sponges for mechanical talent are particularly impacted, but the problem is clearly widespread.
One operator in Scotland, in need of a skilled workshop hand with the capabilities to look after a relatively small but diverse fleet, even invites applicants to name their own price. Such an approach is an outlier, but it demonstrates the difficulty in finding a suitable recruit.
Nevertheless, not every HGV mechanic will be keen on tackling the multiple tasks that fall into the ‘other duties’ basket for engineers at many small coach and bus operators.
Fixing the inevitable toilet malfunction. Undoing vehicle damage late at night. The obligatory school run at times of strife. All require a versatile approach of an engineer. Larger operators are more regimented, but they may still find it hard to prise an engineer away from a main dealership, where training and career progression opportunities are legion.
Such challenges mean that the coach and bus industry needs to grow its own engineers in the same vein that it increasingly does with drivers. What there is no shortage of is current-day industry leaders that began their careers as garage apprentices. Mechanical talent is out there, with the added benefit of competent senior management qualities in some cases.
Finding those individuals is the challenge. To do so, and to develop them into the engineering leaders of the battery and hydrogen era, the industry needs help with apprenticeships. Yet the number of colleges offering such heavy vehicle mechanical courses is falling, according to RHA.
The trade body wants more government funding towards those programmes; a laudable call, but one to be seen against purse strings that are drawn tight. RHA’s suggestion in a pre-Spring Statement submission of funded vocational training for entry-level mechanical roles is also an interesting point, and one that will bear further investigation.
Nevertheless, the mechanical apprenticeship route has already delivered for operators small and large. In London, the capital’s largest bus business Go-Ahead has long reported success there. Family firm Archway Travel on the Fylde coast saw the same in 2023.
Just as clearly as the problem is there in the first place, a partial solution may thus exist. All that is required is a bit more funding and confidence from the industry to get onboard. A secure long-term view of the sector’s direction would greatly assist in achieving the latter; the former is equally in the hands of others, but – like work around HGV drivers during 2022 – it is within the government’s power to advance the required change.