21 Nov 2022

Bus drivers have 'good pay rate now' and paid for training, new Auckland recruits say

7:38 am on 21 November 2022
Shayel Johnston has been driving buses for 18 months now and the former security worker loves his new job.

Shayel Johnston has been driving buses for 18 months now and the former security worker says he loves his new job. Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

New Zealand's bus companies are being forced to pay drivers more, amid a nationwide driver shortage.

Last month the government announced $61 million would be spent on lifting driver wages nationwide, but the shortage remains, particularly in Auckland, a city short of 500 drivers.

RNZ went along to Howick & Eastern Buses' depot on Ti Rakau Drive, home to 220 drivers and 177 buses, to see how they were faring.

Inside, the admin team were hard at work to ensure school and public bus schedules were being met, and there were enough drivers to cover each route.

You'd be hard pressed to find a bus driver more passionate about their career than Shayel Johnston, who spoke to me from inside the Southern Hemisphere's only hydrogen powered bus.

"I've been bus driving for 18 months now. My previous life was in security for about 33 years, and it got to the point that I wanted to really try it and I love it."

It's hoped the government injection will lift wages to about $30 an hour in the cities and around $28 in the regions.

Auckland Transport is using New Zealand's only hydrogen powered bus to trial operational performance and see how operating costs compare to diesel and electric buses of similar configurations.

Auckland Transport is assessing the hydrogen powered bus's performance to see how its operating costs compare to diesel and electric buses of similar configurations. Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

In East Auckland, a sandwich board outside the bus depot advertised a starting wage of $27.45 an hour.

The maximum hours a driver can work per week is 70, though Howick and Eastern said they did not roster anywhere near this amount.

Under Waka Kotahi NZ Transport Agency law, the maximum a driver can do in a day is 13 hours. Howick & Eastern's typical shifts are between nine and nine-and-a-half-hours.

Shayel said he made the most of the extra work on offer.

"It's a double-edged sword because we're about five or six hundred drivers short in Auckland at the moment. If you want extra work it is always there."

Harjit and Gil are bus driving instructors and both have 20 years' experience in the industry.

They let me sit in as they put seven new drivers through their paces and explained what makes driving a bus tricky.

"The main difference between a bus and any other vehicle on the road is that it has overhang," Gil said. "The tyres are behind the driver.

"Most of the vehicles we drive on the road the tyres are either in front or people are sitting on the wheels like trucks. It's a very unpredictable vehicle, so you really need to be careful when you're driving around."

Bus driver Shayel Johnston in front of the Southern Hemisphere's only hydrogen powered bus.

Shayel Johnston in front of the Southern Hemisphere's only hydrogen powered bus. Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

Driver in training, Rohit, has six years experience as a retail manager.

He said the biggest pull for him was job security.

"It's a good pay rate now, the government has injected in some more money to increase for the drivers.

"They train you so well that you don't feel any kind of tension or burden on your mind. You do your duty and you just go home, that's all. Whatever is on at work you leave it at that."

Fellow trainee Gordon, who is almost 50, is a former cabinetmaker. He said it was time for a career change.

"I'm getting older now, I just wanted some job that is very reliable. The environment here is very peaceful, Gil and Harjeet are very nice and friendly and patient for us."

Bob, another new recruit, has driving experience limited to cars, but he's keen to learn, and likes the fact he gets paid to train.

"I've been here for six weeks and still at the first steps. Anyone who wants to come to be the bus driver in training, you get paid for your training, it doesn't matter how many weeks it takes."

Howick & Eastern Buses' depot on Ti Rakau Drive in the Auckland suburb of Tāmaki.

Howick & Eastern Buses' depot in the Auckland suburb of Tāmaki. Photo: RNZ / Leonard Powell

Learning to drive a bus usually takes between one and three months. To be eligible to train you must have had a Class 1 licence, also known as a full licence, for at least two years.

From there, those who don't already have higher qualifications are required to gain a Class 2 licence as well as sit various theory and practical tests.

Shayel had a warning for his new colleagues.

"Unfortunately when you're driving a vehicle, people nowadays are in such a hurry to get from point A to point B. It doesn't matter what you're driving, they will always try to get in front.

"Unfortunately we just live in society where people are always in a hurry. My favourite quote is [the] only person [who] hasn't cut me off is myself."

He also had some advice for people thinking about taking up bus driving as a career.

"You've got to be a people person. If you're not a people person and you don't want to interact, then you should not be driving a bus, because it's people orientated.

"You're carrying the most precious cargo, which is human beings."

And despite rising wages, Howick & Eastern's operations manager Troy O'Dea said there were still times when he needed to get behind the wheel himself.

The company said it was still 18 drivers short on a daily basis.

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