British transport companies are more and more willing to recruit Polish bus drivers. FirstGroup, one of the biggest companies in the UK, has employed about 1,500 Poles across its network in the last five years.
To help meet a driver shortage, FirstGroup has set up a training base in Lublin in southeast Poland. Prospective employees take a crash language course. The teachers emphasize the importance of becoming familiar with regional dialects. FirstGroup decided to include in the lessons some episodes of the BBC sitcom “Only Fools and Horses” and copies of the Stoke Sentinel newspaper from the UK.
In addition to English lessons, drivers are trained in the basics of “bus speak,” so they are not stumped by questions such as “Can I bring my dog on board?” or “How much is a return to the shops?”
Nevertheless it is not the language that is the biggest barrier for Polish bus drivers. Driving a typical British bus, the so-called doubledecker, is much different from what they are used to.
A red doubledecker has been sent to Lublin to complete the authentic British driving experience under the supervision of a FirstGroup training team based in the city, although trainees have to drive on the right-hand side of the road.
The Polish drivers have helped tackle a staffing problem at FirstGroup because very few of them quit within a year of joining – until recently a common problem in the bus industry. Since the first Polish employee arrived in May 2004, the churn rate among the company’s 20,000 drivers has fallen from 30 percent to 25 percent. FirstGroup chief executive Moir Lockhead said the company would welcome more Polish staff: “I don’t see why not.
It is filling a gap. They are good workers, there is no doubt about that. We have also got some good Polish technicians because we were finding it very difficult to recruit and train apprentices, so the top-up from Europe has been really good.”
According to official statistics, 228,000 Poles have registered to live and work in Britain since Poland joined the EU. Other estimates suggest the real figure is closer to 500,000, while the Polish news magazine Polityka estimates that 1 mln Poles have moved to the UK.
For transport companies, Poles are a good target group because the companies often experience difficulties in recruiting drivers in areas of low unemployment. The companies deny that inadequate pay rates, cost-cutting or a skills shortage is the reasons for hiring foreigners.
Stagecoach, based in Perth, Scotland, also recruits bus drivers from Poland. Its spokesman said the Poles would receive the same pay and conditions as their British-born counterparts, getting a basic wage of about 7.50 pounds an hour compared to about 2 pounds an hour in Poland.
For Poles these numbers are attractive enough to encourage them to become drivers on a doubledecker.