Friday, 25 January 2013

Evolution and Trained Monkeys

In my last post I poked a little fun of the Trained Monkey perception that many folks feel best describes the job requirements of an urban transit bus driver. Tongue in cheek? Sure. But in all humour, comes a grain of truth.

This job really has changed over the years. This city has changed too.

If you pulled aside drivers in order of hire date, and asked them to write a paper on driving a bus for OC Transpo, you might get some very interesting and diverse results.

The newer hires mostly remember what the real world is like. They come from jobs that paid less, are grateful for it, and have had recent training and exposure to company policy. The company has really (and rightly) focused on hiring people with customer service backgrounds in the past few years, and these folks are generally better at dealing with the public than the more senior drivers.

The scheduling system actually improved many of the new drivers' working conditions. Where a 6 hour day spread over 13 hours was the norm, they can get a 12 hour day and be guaranteed 3 days off every two weeks instead of one day per week.

Many of the newer hires have more diverse resumes. They have more experience and more education than the longer term employees. The newer driver is less concerned about preserving the old ways of doing things, and is more apt to follow new policies without question.

The hardened vet has an entirely different view of the job.

As a kid, I remember bus drivers as being authority figures. First off, they had taller hats than most. It was a conductor's cap, tall in the front and lower in the back. The hat always had a shiny ornament of some kind in the front, the same way a policeman's did. Bus drivers wore suits, neatly pressed, and had their hair trimmed tightly and were clean shaven.

You paid your fare or you walked in the old days. If you were causing problems on the bus, you walked. If you hit a bus driver, he would likely hit you back. He might even chase you down the street to do it.

Perhaps we shouldn't pine for the old days, but the authority is all but nonexistent in the present days, as is the professional standard that lined it with its polished sheen. Too many policies are obfuscated by "driver discretion" issues that create conflict with our clients. It is very difficult to maintain authority when so many other drivers' discretion is inconsistent with yours. Add to that the toothless response systems to conflict in any government employment, and you get an interesting mix of resentment and job dissatisfaction.

A newer hire might view a fare dispute as just that... a dispute... where a long term vet might view that same dispute as a challenge to his authority.

The hardened vet has lived through a few strikes. He has lived through a mass shooting in his workplace. He has lived through many regimes of managers and politicians, all who think their ideas of transit are the right ideas for transit. The hardened vet has lived through the era where a fare evader was a reason to kill a bus on the spot, and that decision was encouraged by managers and the public alike.

Now, a fare evader is tolerated after a single request for the person to exit the bus.

While most drivers would not admit this, reduced driver decision-making authority over day-to-day situations is one of the most stressing aspects of being a long term bus driver.

It is tough to be a principled person and let other people (who will likely not show up in time) deal with something you used to be expected to deal with.

The veteran bus driver has lived through the era of respect for professionals and graduated to the reality of today where 140 characters are more important to most people than saying Good Morning.

Authority is only one aspect.

Where a bus driver used to serve a neighborhood, he is interlined throughout the city in a series of mad dashes across the city to cover the master computer's next big idea to save money.

Let that sink in a second.

A bus driver used to serve a neighborhood. People used to know our names because we used to serve the street they lived on every day, all day. If there is one thing that the scheduling issues took from us, it is the ability to serve an area, a community, a neighborhood.

I miss the old folks on the 16 route as I chugged my way through to Carlingwood. There is just something special about picking them up every day, and hearing them make references to "Simpson" Sears. Then I'd pick them up a few hours later and drive them home.

One day, an older man got on my bus with a newly purchased set of jumper cables with a Sears logo on them. I quipped "You can ride, just don't start anything". For weeks that story was retold on my bus.

I work hard to try and establish these kinds of connections with each new booking. It's not the same as it used to be, but I still get Christmas presents from customers every year. So, it's not impossible.

Whether you are a hardened vet, a new hire, a manager, or a passenger, take one thing from this little rant.

The evolution of this job has moved us away from the professional standards and customer service principles we try to enforce with policy.

Policy is cold and obtuse.

If we want to make transit better, we need to find ways to create connections with our clients, and get drivers focused on getting job satisfaction through those connections.

We need to evolve back to the old days.

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