Go-Ahead Group recruits 20 graduate trainees a year, most of them in bus. We talk to the woman in charge of the programme about Go-Ahead’s approach, and why it’s successful.

Go-Ahead Group recruits 20 graduate trainees a year.

That means that, over a decade, 200 bright young things will join the public transport industry and go through a comprehensive two-year training process to hone them into brilliant future leaders.

And if Samantha Gudsell is still in charge, they are likely to retain an incredibly positive, passionate outlook on the industry they serve.

The Group’s HR Projects and Learning Lead, Samantha has a strong background in early careers, and has been leading Go-Ahead’s graduate training programme for the last two-and-a-half years.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Samantha Gudsell Go-Ahead
Samantha Gudsell: ‘If I had my time again, I’d do a programme like this’

Her role sees her look after the thousands of applicants for Go-Ahead’s graduate training programme. Over 1,000 people have applied for next year’s 20 roles, which are whittled down to 300 that make it to video interview stage. Around 70 will make it to the final stage – interviews and assessments of competency, attitudes and behaviour, at the Group’s Assessment Centre.

Of those factors, behaviour is the most important, says Sam. “We try and get best out of people, and our message when we promote the programme is, if you have the right attitude and behaviours, there’s so much we can teach you.”

And for those 70, even the 50 or so who don’t make it onto the programme, Samantha will forge a relationship with them and guide them towards their next career step.

“We try hard to make the recruitment process as personable as possible,” she says. “We’re a people business, and we want to make sure their interaction with us, whether they’re successful or not, is positive. They or a member of their family could well go on to use our services, so it’s really important that they have a face to the company.

“Any prospective candidates can link with me on LinkedIn, or have a call with me if they’re nervous about any stage of the process – I obviously won’t divulge what we’re looking for, but I can coach them through some of the emotions they might go through. And for those who aren’t successful, we give them feedback that they can use in the future.”

Go-Ahead graduates meet at a party before training starts
Graduates meet at a summer party before the training starts, followed by a three-week induction

Building relationships

For the 20 who are successful, that relationship with Sam lasts for the whole of the two-year programme.

The programme starts with a three-week induction at Go-Ahead’s Head Office in London, for all the new graduates, even those based in Ireland. This is when Sam gets to know the successful 20, but not only that, they meet CEO David Brown and the executive committee; they take part in team-building activities; and they learn about Go-Ahead’s structure and growth strategy.

Three weeks is enough time for relationships to build between the graduates and with Sam. Once the graduates have gone to their operating companies, Sam checks in with them every four to six weeks, and a big part of her job is making sure they feel comfortable contacting her for support.

“Once they’ve moved away and they’re adapting to work, we find it really important that they know they can call me whenever they need to,” she says.

Women in bus

women in bus initiative go-ahead
Programme is endorsed by CEO David Brown, and has fed into Women in Bus initiative

Sam is particularly passionate about supporting female graduates through what is still a male-dominated industry.

“So we do a lot of work on the programme around building resilience,” she says. “We see so many people, from any degree discipline; we get people with law degree, or in drama, or geography. And they’ve done amazing things outside their studies – but it’s important we prepare them for the challenges of working in an operational environment, local teams in their operating companies are integral to supporting this.

“It’s really important to us to get more women in – we know they make great leaders and people managers. They care about driver engagement and customers.”

The graduate programme feeds into Go-Ahead’s Women in Bus network, launched last summer [routeone/Big Story/31 July 2019].

“A lot of the stuff we’re looking to do with the Women in Bus network around recruitment, we’ve been doing on the graduate programme for the last couple of years,” says Sam.

That includes looking at the recruitment process, and not just at how to attract and support women, but how the business and industry are perceived by people in the first place.

Before recruitment adverts are published, Go-Ahead uses a tool to check how the wording is gendered, and changes it if it is. It has also done a risk analysis for the graduate recruitment process to make sure it is not doing anything unsupportive of female candidates – a stage that’s now being taken into the Women in Bus programme.

And, it tries to provide female role models, while not misrepresenting the situation. “It would be deceptive to show adverts with loads of female bus drivers,” says Sam. “But having physical role models is important, as is letting candidates know that just because we don’t have a female Managing Director at the moment, it doesn’t mean they couldn’t do that in years to come.

“We frequently ask the female graduates: ‘Do you feel the role is what you applied for?’, because we want to make sure what we’re selling to them is realistic, and reflected in the roles they’re doing.”

The approach has been a roaring success. The number of female applicants this year has risen to 35% of the total, up from 24% last year. And so far, 65% of Go-Ahead’s graduate offers have been made to women, which is the highest ever.

But, “it’s not just women,” Sam stresses. “We support all our graduates, because the environment can be challenging. I check back in with them, and all directors have a personal responsibility to them.

“Not just from a pastoral point of view, and the day-to-day ‘are they okay’, but also are they developing in the right way.”

Go-Ahead graduate Tom
East Yorkshire’s graduate Tom – it was ‘easy’ to integrate with the newly-acquired operator

Graduates on the ground

Once each graduate is in their depot, the training largely follows the same format. “But the beauty of our business, and its devolved structure, is that each operating company has its own nuances and its own way of operating for graduates to get to grips with,” says Sam.

“We do graduate events four times a year, when they come back and share those experiences. They’re not all doing the same thing at the same time – they’re involved in different projects, and after the three-week induction they stay in touch with each other, and talk among themselves about how to deal with things.”

It is a particularly exciting time for Go-Ahead, with the recent acquisitions of EYMS and First Manchester providing new operating environments. This year, one graduate has gone to East Yorkshire, which sits under Go North East (GNE), and another will go to the new Go North West (GNW) next year.

In both cases, setting it up has been “easy”, says Sam, because the directors at the helm – Martijn Gilbert and Ben Gilligan at GNE, and Nigel Featham at GNW – are so on board with it and passionate about encouraging new talent.

“A graduate will join GNW while it’s still growing, there’ll be so many things they’ll be able to implement to make it even better, so it’s a nice project for them to get their teeth into,” says Sam.

Feeding down from the top

'Each operating company has its own way of operating for graduates to get to grips with'
‘Each operating company has its own way of operating for graduates to get to grips with’

Sam’s passion is infectious. And it’s not just her: She finds that everyone at head office is enthusiastic and invested in what the graduates are up to, feeding down from the top, with big endorsement from David Brown.

“We are good at celebrating their talents,” she says. “The level of responsibility all of us feel towards them is huge – making sure they’re okay, happy and safe.

“They never fly under the radar; as a business, we spend around £20m a year upscaling and developing our staff, and the graduates are a huge part of that. For that reason, it’s important that the right doors are open, they’re in quite a safe environment, and if they do make a mistake, it’s okay, and they can learn from it.

“If I had my time again, I’d do a programme like this. The opportunities they get are amazing – and as an organisation, we’re really good at recognising their contribution.”

 A new scheme for 2021

Since time of writing, the Go-Ahead Group’s graduate scheme has been restructured, enhanced and further improved.

Go-Ahead reveals the company’s new scheme will now launch in January 2021, rather than September 2020, due to the impact of coronavirus COVID-19. The programme no longer offers a three-week induction in its central office. Instead candidates will have a focused, two-day introduction, with 15 days’ training spread throughout the two years.

This new model, implemented through feedback, helps candidates to continually learn throughout the scheme. Graduates will also meet for physical and virtual events throughout the year and hear directly from David every quarter.

Critically, its revamped programme also places more focus on wellbeing and mental health, especially the transition from university to working life.

Since the publication of this article, the Go-Ahead Group’s graduate scheme has been restructured, enhanced and further improved.

The Group’s new scheme will launch in January 2021, rather than September 2020, owing to the impact of coronavirus COVID-19. The programme no longer offers a three-week induction at Go-Ahead’s central office. Instead, participants will have a focused, two-day induction, with 15 days’ training spread across the two years.

The new model, implemented after feedback, helps candidates to continually learns throughout the scheme. Graduates will also meet for physical and virtual events throughout the year and they will hear from Group CEO David Brown every quarter.

“Critically, our revamped programme also places more focus on wellbeing and mental health, especially for the transition from university to working life,” says a spokesperson.

“Given the uncertainty of coronavirus COVID-19, we are not taking on as many as 20 applicants this year, as advertisied in the original article. However, the graduate programme remains an integral part of the Go-Ahead Group, and our new focus should provide an even better offering for candidates.”