New coach driver academy aims to ease operator woes

Coach driver academy
Partnerships bring success. L-R Laurence Bolton (NDC), Peter Bradley (UKCOA), Andy Palmer (A. Palmer Associates), Mark Anderson (Anderson Travel), Peter Wright Southgate & Finchley Coaches), and Emma Gillson and Richard Jackman (DWP)

A new initiative developed by UKCOA in partnership with the Department for Work and Pensions to attract new coach drivers has been launched in London. Success could see the scheme rolled out across the country

It’s March 2022 and at a board meeting of the UK Coach Operators Association (UKCOA) the idea of developing a coach driver academy is one of the discussion points. A representative from the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been invited to explain what opportunities there might be for government funding.

The discussion identifies a number of ways to move forward. Mark Anderson, Director of London-based Anderson Travel, takes the lead on the project, working closely with fellow UKCOA Director, Andy Palmer of A. Palmer Associates.

Fast forward a year to 27 February 2023 and the new UKCOA Coach Driver Academy is welcoming its first candidates. The project has resulted in 15 DWP fully-funding places on the training course.

The location for the launch of the initiative is the National Driving Centre (NDC) in Croydon, south London. Parked in the yard are coaches belonging to UKCOA members Anderson Travel and Southgate and Finchley Coaches, and minibuses from the fleet of A. Palmer and Mayday Travel.

coach driver academy
Candidates were given an opportunity to explore their ‘workplace’

The launch is much more than a launch. It is the coming together of the first cohort of candidates for whom the day could be the start of a new career as coach drivers.

Prior to the event, the DWP team of Emma Gillson, Partnership Manager for Croydon job centre, and Richard Jackman, her colleague from the neighbouring districts of Sutton and Merton, who have led the development of the programme from the DWP side, have already vetted applicants, focusing on character, ability and the legal aspects.

There are 11 candidates in the hall. After welcomes by Emma and Richard, and from Laurence Bolton of the NDC, Mark Anderson and Andy Palmer explain more about the coach industry and what they are looking for. The candidates are then taken out to the coaches and minibuses for an opportunity to inspect the ‘workplace’.

Coach Driver Academy
About to embark on a new career? The 11 candidates from the morning session

On hand to provide comprehensive information from a coach driver’s perspective are Peter Wright, Director of Southgate and Finchley Coaches, and Janet Bradley, Lead Driver with Anderson Travel.

Later, the candidates are interviewed by Mark and Andy (as the prospective employers) before the session comes to an end.

A second session, with a further 12 candidates attending, takes place in the afternoon.

The result of this inaugural academy is that of the 23 candidates, 14 have been offered places on the training course with a further candidate likely to be added once further checks have been made. It means that all of the DWP fully-funded places have been filled.

coach driver academy
Mark Anderson offers candidates an overview of the coach industry

A successful start

“I’m not often surprised by what I see,” says Mark Anderson. “But today has been an eye-opener. Because of the DWP team’s enthusiasm and involvement, we have 15 people going forward to be trained as coach drivers. The original vetting carried out by DWP was crucial. That was the first part of the process, identifying likely candidates to continue the training process.

“Talking with them during the day I realised there are a lot of good people out there who, for all sorts of reasons, just need a leg up. This project does just that. Assuming they make it through the rest of the training process I can see we’re going to have some excellent coach drivers joining my company and others in UKCOA.”

Emma Gillson, from DWP, explains that after early meetings with UKCOA, she and Richard wrote the business case.

“Everything we do is about getting unemployed people back into work,” she says. “This project delivers benefits to the employer. It has a meaningful route. If this pilot project is successful, and it’s looking as though it will be, the template can be rolled out by other DWP offices across the country.”

Her colleague, Richard Jackman, emphasises the importance of separating coach from bus. We use words such as ‘chauffeur’ in describing what the work involves. This is all about finding good quality coach drivers, not bus drivers.”

UKCOA Managing Director, Peter Bradley, notes that each of the trade bodies has taken a different route to look at the issue of coach driver shortages.

“We’ve taken this particular route and I’m really pleased with the way the relationship with DWP has developed,” he says. “This process of DWP vetting and selection, today’s enthusing session, and the forthcoming training, looks set to deliver trained coach drivers to operators across the country.”

Final word to one of the candidates, Tyrone, 36, a family man from Mitcham, south London.

“Today has been really good,” he says as he steps off the Anderson coach, smiling, after sitting in the driver’s seat. “I’ve driven vans all over the country but I’ve always wanted to drive coaches. I’m not interested in being a bus driver. I want to interact with people. Perhaps one day I’ll drive continental tours. I think I’d rather like that. This project is giving me the opportunity to do all of that.”