Back to college for bus workers

Driver and union learning rep Jimmy Lillis has gained a couple of awards. Picture: John Devlin
Driver and union learning rep Jimmy Lillis has gained a couple of awards. Picture: John Devlin
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BUS depots are turning into mini colleges as workers take a break from driving double-deckers and tuning engines to expand their minds.

Aberdeen-based operator FirstGroup has established a network of 50 workplace learning centres at its garages across the UK, where staff are studying everything from Spanish to scuba diving.

The centres, set up with the union Unite, have become the envy of the industry, with employees clocking up 35,000 visits to the four Scottish centres last year alone.

Hundreds have completed literacy and numeracy courses, and more than 500 have entered the company’s annual short story competition since it was launched in 2010, whose winning entries are published.

At the Caledonia depot in Glasgow, Britain’s biggest with space for 450 buses, other courses have included French, Italian and playing the guitar.

Staff are also learning sign language to help passengers with hearing difficulties.

The centre has now received a gold award from the company to recognise its “excellence” as the best in the UK.

Jimmy Lillis, the depot’s union learning representative, said the firm provided equipment for the centres, such as computers, while funding for courses came from the Scottish Trades Union Congress.

Tutors are then recruited from colleges to run classes.

One of the most popular topics at Caledonia has been drivers from eastern Europe learning “Glaswegian”.

Lillis said: “A lot of them can understand English, but they come in with bits of paper asking what things passengers have said to them mean.”

More than 100 are also taking a course in English for speakers of other languages, including at the other Scottish centres, at Scotstoun in Glasgow, Blantyre in South Lanarkshire and Aberdeen.

The first centre was launched at the former Larkfield depot in Glasgow in 2000, which transferred to Caledonia when it opened last year.

Lillis said: “The older drivers also come in for help with things like learning to use a smartphone because their kids use them so fast they can’t keep up.

“Other companies and councils are amazed at the facilities the centres provide, and want to come and see them so they can set up their own. I have never come across another firm which supplies this sort of thing for their staff.”

Among those who have benefited has been driver Samuel Ward, from Viewpark in Glasgow, who was struggling to read and write when he joined the company.

His skills dramatically incr­eased, boosting his confidence and self-esteem, and enable him to help his children with their homework.

Mick Dowds, Unite’s union convener at First Bus, said: “FirstGroup is to be commended for its overall approach to lifelong learning.

“Working with First, we have developed one of the most successful lifelong learning partnerships in the passenger transport sector.”

First Glasgow managing dir­ector Fiona Kerr said: “Workplace learning centres are an integral part of all our bus dep­ots and demonstrate our commitment to looking after our employees and helping them learn and develop new skills.

“These have been developed through the great working rel­ationship we have with our union. As a result, thousands of our colleagues have improved their literacy, language and IT skills. We’ve even had them learning sign language – all of which benefits both the ­business and ultimately the customer.”