We sat down with Sean Algar, Head of Talent Management at Stagecoach, to delve into his diverse career history, how Stagecoach are adapting to the changing high-volume hiring landscape, and the need to embrace change.
Over the last twenty years or so I’ve been largely responsible for sourcing, onboarding, developing and delivering high performing sales and service teams. I’ve always found myself drawn to the recruitment side of things out of a desire to improve diversity in our candidate pools and to attract the profile of people we need.
I entered the tech world during the early ‘90s, the era of mobile phone growth. While I don’t consider myself particularly tech-savvy, I began working with a lot of bright, ambitious, and forward-thinking individuals. The dynamic environment appealed to me, and I found that it was my niche working for the likes of Nokia, Microsoft, Samsung and Sky.
I’d like to think my strength comes from my experience in leading people and managing change and my roles have involved a focus on changing the profiles and diversity of the existing workforce to meet the changing demands of the business. I joined Stagecoach specifically to address the driver deficit that arose because of Covid and Brexit - and it felt like a familiar challenge. I’ve got a background in the travel industry. Many years ago, back when I was a youngster, I worked for British Airways albeit this is down on the ground and my previous role was quite literally “up in the air”.
Before joining Stagecoach, I spent nearly six years as the Head of Field at Sky, responsible for about 1,400 engineers and installers dedicated to delivering exceptional service in customers’ homes. When I joined Sky, approximately 1% of our engineers were female. This was something we wanted to change. We overhauled our Employer Value Proposition (EVP) and redefined how we presented our business to attract a more diverse range of talent. There’s a misconception that outdoor work is only suitable for big, strong, robust chaps, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. We looked at our EVP, attraction campaigns, advertising language, and overall branding - and we made significant changes. As a result of these concerted efforts, the percentage of female engineers increased from 1% to circa 16% during my time at Sky.
Shortly after joining I remember going to Norfolk to launch a regional conference where I looked out over a sea of around a hundred and twenty people, and not a single female was present! By the time I left nearly six years later, we had three or four females in each team of circa twenty engineers. We achieved this simply by challenging conventional thinking and embracing change. I firmly believe that change should be encouraged, not feared. There are significant benefits to be gained by change, but it requires courage and it’s a mindset I encourage in others too.
At Stagecoach, it's quite unique because, while we're owned by DWS and have 18 businesses under the Stagecoach umbrella, they all operate as independent entities. Each has its own autonomy with an MD and a separate board, allowing them to make their own decisions. They all have their own distinct characteristics. While the overall structure may be similar, the businesses are scattered around the country, have different-looking facilities, and possess their own local knowledge. Consequently, they have varying levels of expertise when it comes to recruitment.
In my role, I serve as a support function rather than a supervisory one. I don’t have control over recruitment or budgets; instead, I provide support and advice, encouraging companies or individuals to come to me for assistance. My year has been focused on understanding best practices, learning who is doing what, and what strategies have been effective. There isn’t a Universal or single silver bullet solution due to the different local conditions and challenges. Understanding this requires open communication, asking lots of questions to ascertain local challenges and blockers, before finding the best combination that suits each unique situation. That has been a challenge.
However, I have noticed some trends. Something prevalent across all entities is a growing desire among people for greater flexibility and choice. We’ve got to adapt and explore how we can better accommodate individuals outside of the traditional long-hour shifts. Many of our potential bus drivers no longer want to work under these conditions, so we need to be more flexible.
In Manchester, we’ve recently introduced a new school run service offering drivers between 20 to 30 hours a week; a change we wouldn’t have considered previously. Ultimately, we're becoming more adept at understanding our employees' needs. This will help us achieve our goal of ensuring our workforce mirrors our customer base. We want the people driving our buses to reflect the diversity of the passengers they serve, and that's what we're striving for.
Our high-volume job landscape has changed dramatically, largely because, pre-Brexit, employers had more options when it came to selecting suitable candidates. In situations where our UK nationals chose not to apply we always had a large pool of EU drivers and engineers ready, willing and accustomed to the working conditions which made recruitment easier and so less challenges in filling high volume roles that we are witnessing now. This tap was turned off with Brexit.
Moreover, the Covid pandemic and subsequent shift to hybrid work arrangements has prompted a lot of people to re-evaluate their lifestyle and work-life balance. People started questioning whether they wanted to return to the same routine of long commutes and demanding hours, or if they were willing to accept slightly lower pay in exchange for more time at home and better family quality time. I believe it led people to reflect on their own mortality too, and reconsider how they wanted to spend their remaining time. Many began to ask themselves, "How long do I have to work, and what do I really want to do with my life? Do I really want to be getting up and leaving for work in the dark, arriving home in the dark on a rolling 5/7 roster anymore?
The typical profile of people who used to fill our high-volume engineering and bus driver positions now includes an ageing population. They want to slow down, work fewer hours, and potentially earn a bit less money in exchange for more time at home. We’re seeing a shift from the “live to work” mindset that was once prevalent among the working population.
We've placed a significant emphasis on networks, establishing seven networks comprising protected groups of individuals. We want to ensure that diversity is well-represented in our workplace, so we’ve reviewed our proposition and tailored our adverts. In the past, you may have seen more traditional advertisements featuring individuals that looked like me, but now, our advertisements for both engineers and bus drivers are more representative of our organisation and customer base.
In the past, our advertising approach wasn’t as digitally focused. We primarily relied on traditional job boards, advertised on our buses, and ran some newspaper and radio promotions. Digital advertising has opened up a landscape of new possibilities, offering us a broader reach and improved measurement and analytics capabilities. This digital shift enables us to be more targeted and reach a larger, more diverse audience than we could before.
By extending the reach of our advertisements to connect with a broader audience, we’re not only addressing the deficit created by Brexit but also cultivating a genuinely diverse workforce. Some years ago, this profession was predominantly comprised of males ages 40 and above, but that’s no longer the case. Our diverse workforce is something we take great pride in. It’s a driving force for us, as it leads to better outcomes - improved input, contributions, and innovation. Our diverse employees offer valuable insights into what people want which guides our focus.
One of our next challenges is attracting 16 to 24-year-olds to build our early career pipeline. While there are certain restrictions, such as the requirement for a driver’s licence to become a bus driver, we’re actively working with schools, colleges, and specialised agencies to engage with younger individuals to develop a pipeline of talented young people into the business.
The answer is probably no, at least not in our case. However, I understand where they’re coming from.
For us, most of our focus has been on high-volume roles, which is where our greatest challenge lies. Considering that approximately 19,000 out of our 23,000 employees are in high-volume positions, our primary challenge is the sheer scale of our workforce and ongoing need to recruit to ensure we can grow. However, as we expand and introduce new roles, particularly in areas like Corporate Social Responsibility and Sustainability, I suspect we might face different challenges. We’ll need individuals with very specific skill sets in new sectors so we might need to be more targeted in our approach to find the right people.
Our roles in London, I must say, present a significant challenge simply because of the intense competition in the area, whether it’s for drivers or engineers. There are so many opportunities available, and people have a wide range of choice. Additionally, the transfer of rights and pensions when changing employers in London means that individuals are more inclined to switch if they receive a better offer elsewhere. This competitive environment means that we’ve got to do more in terms of wellbeing, development, and other related areas. These aspects are a huge focus for us. It’s not just about attracting people; it’s also about ensuring that once we bring them onboard, they feel well-cared for, valued, appreciated and developed. This is where our well-being policies come into play.
We’ve come to realise that it’s not all about the money. Some individuals are willing to trade a few pounds for a work environment where they feel comfortable, valued, recognised, and enjoy what they do. This is a significant part of our positioning: you may earn more money in other driving roles (HGV) and you may be offered greater flexibility (Uber, Amazon delivery work) however we offer a very competitive salary in the sector and focus on what Stagecoach can provide employees. Our benefits begin on your first day and extend to your family. You become a part of a team, with opportunities for career advancement and job security. We’re a long-established, successful company, just a few of the reasons why people choose to work with us over other bus operators.
People have so much choice nowadays so it’s crucial to create a straightforward and user-friendly process. When someone is considering applying, they are likely to be exploring and applying for all the driver’s jobs in London. It’s essential that our landing page is clear, welcoming and engaging. It should enable them to easily understand the job description, recognise the job’s appeal, and understand why they should choose us.
The application process should be as simple as possible, providing applicants with confirmation of their application, an estimated wait time, and details about the next steps. We need to keep them engaged throughout each stage of the process.
We’ve significantly streamlined the application process without compromising the quality of candidates we attract. We focus only on essential questions during the application, reserving others for the interview stage. As a result, we’re receiving far more applications than we used to get.
Until recently it’s not been easy to get hold of! We work with a system called Workday, which is integrated into our operations and generally works well, but it requires some adjustments.
Data is absolutely essential. We want to achieve the best return on investment (ROI) and support our hiring managers across the country in effectively measuring ROI on the spend across all platforms. That’s the nuts and bolts. If we can accurately track the source of every application instead of relying on drop-down menus where people tend to select the first option without much thought, we can start to get accurate insights into where to allocate our budget and resources. It may well be that a blend of channels is the most effective approach, but we’ll only be able to determine this if we can accurately measure where all our applications are coming from.
We need to change the way we operate. We must embrace change, step out of our comfort zones, and utilise the various platforms available today. Relying on methods that worked twenty, twenty-five, or thirty years ago won't cut it anymore. As people begin to witness success from reallocating their spend to other channels, I believe the reluctance to try new methods will reduce and with best practice being shared, success will breed success.
At present, I often find myself in the position of having to prove the value of these new approaches. I tell OpCos, “Work with us, we’ll offer suggestions and invest time, effort, and resources to make it the best we can.” In most cases, we’re quickly seeing a better return on investment.
However there's no one-size-fits-all solution and you can't assume that what works on Facebook in London will automatically work in Yorkshire. However, when we've identified successful strategies and can track them accurately, we can demonstrate how they've worked elsewhere. It all comes down to whether we can measure it. Ultimately, the better the quality of our data, the more likely we are to rapidly grow the business.
Digital and social media. Social media has always been about reach, but it’s difficult to measure. However, tracking has become easier as we implement new systems, closely monitor the response to our adverts and track where applicants are coming from. So, digital and social media, compared to traditional advertising, is probably the difference we’ve seen at Stagecoach and have made a significant impact.
We've utilised platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and others although I wouldn’t say we’re ahead of the curve. It’s still new to us, and we’re trying to understand and implement best practice. We’ve got a new marketing team who are doing some really great creative stuff and have been instrumental in updating our collateral and enhancing our imagery to better reflect our workforce, which in turn makes our brand more appealing and contemporary.
"If you always do what you always done, you'll always get what you've always got.” Henry Ford
I really love this Henry Ford quote. I often use it when I'm working with new people or businesses, for instance if I’m meeting with a new Managing Director who might have been asked to work with me. I just leave it on the screen and ask them to take a moment to think about it. Essentially, I'm saying, "You've been using job boards and often the same methods for many years and now it’s harder than ever to recruit for certain roles so it’s time to rethink. If you try something different, reallocate your budget, you might see better results.”
It's about being ready to embrace change. It can be challenging, but it's necessary.
When I want to illustrate this concept further, I use analogies like Nokia, Blockbuster, Kodak, and Woolworths. They were all once household names that people thought would last forever. But they became complacent, or they didn't adapt, or they didn't embrace change. The penalty is high, you won’t be here forever if you don’t adapt, diversify and look to change.