A shortage in trained staff led Rapid Bus to upgrade its training department to a Bus Academy.
WELL-trained bus drivers who can earn up to RM4,000 undergo programmes that train them to not only handle buses but also ensure they have the necessary soft skills such as customer service.
There are also plans to introduce conversational English classes so these drivers are able to greet customers and provide simple directions to help foreign tourists.
Long-serving drivers can also elect to be taken off the road to become supervisors in the control room, depots or terminals.
These are some of the things that await those considering a career in bus driving here. The message is: there is a career path, and it is not just spent inside the bus.
Malaysia is currently transforming bus driving into a respectable profession, by bringing standards up to match those in developed countries.
This takes place within the backdrop of severe shortage of drivers in the region, which has led to various solutions being tried. Singapore, for example, allows foreigners to drive their buses, and many Malaysians do take up the offer.
However, Malaysia is not going down that path, and prefers to make the profession more attractive, especially to youngsters.
For a start, it is rebranding the job description, from a mere bus driver to “bus captain”.
This process of turning men and women into those capable of providing sterling service, takes place at a purpose built facility operated by Rapid Bus Sdn Bhd, a subsidiary of Prasarana Malaysia Bhd.
Prasarana is the country’s leading public transport operator with hundreds of buses in Klang Valley, Penang and Kuantan.
Called the Bus Academy, it began as the Rapid Bus’ training department, before a decision was made to upgrade it to be an academy five years ago.
Located in Balakong, the state-of-the-art facility remains the only one in the country that offers a comprehensive programme to produce bus captains and mechanics to maintain the fleet.
“From training our own bus captains and mechanics, we have recently opened up the academy to take in staff from other transportation companies as well,” said academy head Jaslino Mohamed Yusoff, who is also the senior vice-president at Rapid Bus.
Over the past few years, the academy has been producing manpower to meet the need in the country for personnel to drive buses, whether the candidate is a fresh-faced 21-year-old, or a seasoned lorry driver looking for change.
According to the Land Public Transport Commisssion (SPAD), the academy is an important component of the public transport landscape.
“We recognise bus captains are an important part of the equation, even as we strive to put in hundreds of kilometres of urban rail lines. Buses serve that crucial last mile connection between train stations and where people live or work,” said Azharuddin Mat Sah, CEO of SPAD.
A lack of personnel
For public transport industry observer Y.S. Chan, while there are many problems in the bus sector, none is more serious than the shortage of drivers.
“Many do not take their employment seriously, as they can easily hop from one company to another as demand for bus drivers far outstrips supply.
“In this regard, upgrading the professionalism of our public service vehicle drivers would be the most visible and effective transformation of our road transportation.
“This can be achieved by setting up a drivers’ academy,” he said.
“We may have enough vocational and defensive driving schools but the industry is simply not getting quality drivers in the numbers needed. Hence the need for a drivers’ academy not only for training in driving skills, but also to develop public service vehicle drivers as a professional career that will even attract graduates to join,” Chan added.
On its part, Prasarana is furiously recruiting bus captains, with walk-in interviews done on almost a weekly basis, leading to fresh intakes every fortnight.
At the moment, not even a SPM certificate is needed for one to embark on this journey.
“We even take in those with SRP/PMR qualifications, though a minimum of SPM is actually preferred,” said Jaslino, who added that the shortage of bus captains is by no means unique to Malaysia.
“Singapore is facing the same problem as us, though the key difference is they allow foreigners to drive their buses, while we don’t,” he said.
Other than producing the numbers, the academy is also focused on raising the overall professionalism of the industry so that driving a bus can been seen as a respectable profession like how it is in developed countries.
The academy offers 25 vocational and technical courses. It spares no effort or cost in procuring the best, and is the first in the Southeast Asia region to train drivers using dynamic bus simulators that mimic real-world driving conditions very well.
“We have invested a lot in technology and equipment. What we need now are skilled captains who are committed to the job,” said Prasarana CEO Datuk Seri Azmi Aziz.
“Prasarana has its own benchmark when it comes to training bus captains. This benchmark has been validated by local authorities and international groups. So, I think we are there in terms of standards and quality, and we can help the bus industry by offering to train other bus drivers,” he added.
For Prasarana, the academy is a natural evolution towards doing things better.
“We saw the need to have a structured training programme, and at the same time, improve our training modules and curriculum.
“Firstly, we have modules that are based on what the industry needs, whether it is from Rapid Bus or other companies.
“Rapid Bus is the only one having a certification programme for its drivers. Our programmes also cover the soft skills part such as customer service,” said Jaslino.
The academy goes one step further by offering courses accredited by the Skills Development Department under the Human Resources Ministry.
Those who pass can obtain the Malaysia Skills Certificate (SKM), ranging from Levels 1 to 4 (equivalent to a diploma).
The academy’s trainers are all certified as vocational training officers by the Skills Development Department, with each having either the SKM Levels 3 and 4, as well as certification from the Human Resources Development Fund, and the Sijil Pengajaran Memandu or SPIM from the Road Transport Department.
According to Datuk Dr Pang Chau Leong, director-general of the Skills Development Department, a good public transport system is critical in raising the overall productivity of the people, and contribute to better living conditions for all.
“A trained and competent workforce is central to whether we can succeed in achieving this. To this end, it is important we ensure Prasarana staff are given the knowledge and skills they need to do a good job,” said Dr Pang at Prasarana’s last convocation ceremony for its staff.
Surprisingly, the academy is also looking at introducing conversational English classes.
“We aspire for our drivers to be able to greet customers and provide simple directions, especially those driving the GoKL buses in Kuala Lumpur so they can help foreign tourists,” said Jaslino.
An academy is also the best way to teach what driving a modern bus is all about. Unlike buses plying the roads 20 years ago, new buses come with automatic transmission, pneumatic doors, power steering, air suspension (instead of the old style metal springs), as well as wheelchair ramps or lifts. “We need to expose them to the latest technology. Those who qualified more than 10 years ago may have trained on manual transmission buses. Or they may not have been driving for quite some time, and for these people, they need to be retrained or have their skills refreshed,” said Jaslino, who said the certification will be the way forward for Prasarana.
“We want all our drivers to have a SKM of at least Level 2. As for mechanics, about 60% of them already have SKM Level 3, and we are aiming for all of them to reach that level,” said Jaslino.
Freshies get a basic pay of RM1,000 (even while under training), and an allowance of RM30 for each day they turn up for work, meaning someone who drives for 25 days in a month is assured of RM1,750, excluding overtime pay.
The cost of obtaining the Public Service Vehicle (PSV) licence is also sponsored by Prasarana, a qualification that easily costs more than RM1,300 when one goes through other routes.
Trainees from further away are provided with free hostel accommodation, other than the usual uniform, laundry allowance, EPF, and medical coverage that is also extended to immediate family members.
“A shift can be eight to10 hours on a five-day week basis. Our seasoned drivers take home anything from RM3,000 to 4,000 a month, while beginners can easily earn up to RM2,500 with overtime, which is better than the starting salary of some graduates,”said Jaslino, who oversaw the training of 1,030 trainees last year to supply drivers for the MRT and LRT extension projects.
“Any bus captain will have a job waiting for him or her.
“Most like the stability that we provide, as well as the prospects for career advancement. There are also opportunities for those who no longer want to be on the road such as becoming supervisors in the control room, depots, or terminals. There is a career path, and it is not just spent inside the bus. In developed countries, it is a respectable profession.
“We are the best in the transport industry at the moment. We give you the license, accommodation, allowances, and a stable job,” Jaslino added.
A good number of the very best Malaysian bus drivers also end up working in Singapore, earning no less than RM8,000 a month. Chan’s brother, who drives a bus in Australia, earns around A$80,000 (RM270,000) a year.
Those wishing to apply to join the academy should be aged from 21 to 50 years old, for both males and females. They should already possess a Class D (car) licence for at least three years with a clean driving record, and at least SRP/PMR. Only those having either a Class E Goods Driving Licence, or a Public Service Vehicle licence, are exempted from the minimum academic requirements. At any case, a bus captain must also be able to read and write.
Many youngsters are catching on to the benefits of being a bus captain. Mohd Ruzainie Khalib, 22, from Temerloh, Pahang, used to clock long hours as a lorry driver, but eventually found his way into the academy.
“Here, it is more predictable shift work, and this really looked like a good change.”
Fellow trainee Hariyanto Suwoto, 25, of Sungai Buloh, Selangor, concurs: “I am so thankful for this opportunity, as it opens the door for a better livelihood for me.”