Monday, 11 July 2016

Life begins at 22...

I suppose you're all due an update, really! Life, unsurprisingly has once again changed quite dramatically for me, and I find myself in a better position than I ever really dreamt of. 

To start with, I'll take you briefly through my thought process as I came towards the end of my studies in Huddersfield, and began to consider the scary prospect of starting full time, permanent employment. The natural progression of course, is to apply to join one of the Big 5's graduate schemes, and indeed, that is what many of my counterparts have selected to do. I was to a certain extent being 'head-hunted' for Go-Ahead's scheme, and was in contact with the (yes, this is a real job!) 'Group Talent Manager'. These schemes are in essence set up to nurture potential talent, giving successful applicants exposure to all parts of the industry and its operations, building knowledge from the ground up, and not particularly presuming prior knowledge, but rather looking for someone who they see potential to mold into what they require. For pretty much these exact reasons, this is what put me off, applying for such a scheme. Without meaning to sound big headed, after studying a specialist course for the past 4 years, and having already had plenty of 'early stage' industry exposure, and knowledge, in particular during my 15 months at Plymouth Citybus, I felt that there was nothing particularly to gain from spending time doing something very similar, all over again. The schemes also do not, in a vast majority of cases, come with a guaranteed job at the end of them, and so my conclusion was that the 2 years spent simply duplicating a lot of what I have already done, could be better spent in a 'real' position, either working my way up, or going straight into the type of position I would have been applying for at the end of a graduate scheme. 

 Whilst my time at Plymouth Citybus had been fantastic, and was very kindly offered the chance to go back, I was somewhat concerned about becoming stuck in a rut. Whilst I was young and geographically fluid, with no ties to specific areas I thought it best to move on from PCB for the time being and try something different, with new experiences. This I felt would expand my knowledge, open me up to new opportunities, and would mean I wouldn't end up being a career Citybus-man like many in the company have become, with quite a number of employees achieving over 40 years of service. I must admit then, that I was being very picky with who I was applying to, because I was still in such a comfortable position, with several good opportunities already open to me. The only job I actually applied to, was for an Assistant Operations Manager position at the Isle of Wight's Southern Vectis. I was shortlisted for final interview, which I attended in late February, but was unfortunately unsuccessful, against a cohort of many more experienced busman, than I! Realising that I was possibly trying to punch above my weight, I looked to apply to managerial positions slightly lower down in the pecking order. Unfortunately, jobs such as the Service Control Manager, Forward Allocator, and so on, are pretty much exclusively the domain of internal applicants, which ruled me out of these to. It was looking therefore like the only option may be to apply to be a driver, and attempt to work my way through the ranks to managerial level. This I was by no means disheartened by, as it meant I had the luxury of being able to carefully consider and choose who I would really like to work for, and ponder the best company available for opportunity and long term career progression. 

To buy myself some time though, I decided I'd try and indulge myself for the summer ahead. Many of you will of course be aware, that my favorite vehicle type has always been the Bristol VR, upon which I first gathered interest in the industry, on trips into Plymouth from home in Cawsand, and on my daily commute to Devonport High School for Boys. Sadly, 2016 marks the very last year they can be used in normal public service, so I thought it was a bit of a 'now or never' opportunity to try and drive one in service, before 'DDA Day' loomed at the end of the year! Luckily of course, we have Riverlink's stalwart fleet of VRs almost on our doorstep, and so I sent a very speculative letter to Bus Divisional Manager, Jim O'Hara, pleading with him to come and let me have a play with his buses. To my delight, I received a swift reply stating that he'd be very willing to take me on for the summer, and after a brief interview, I was set for the summer. What I didn't expect, was what came next! 

Following on from the interview, and after a brief panic when it was discovered the insurers weren't 100% willing to let an under 25 year old onto the policy, Jim e-mailed me ahead of my start date with a new prospect on offer. With his intentions to retire at the end of the 2017 season, the company had begun to have feelers out for a potential replacement for him, and after a discussion with the CEO offered me the chance to be trained up over the preceding year to take over his position when the time came. Jim himself admits this was somewhat tongue in cheek, presuming I'd intend to move on swiftly into one of the multi-national operators, and had no real intention of wanting to play with a small independent bus operator. Evidently, he didn't know me very well at that point! Unsurprisingly to many of you, I absolutely jumped at the chance; for me, this was a position I only ever expected to reach towards the end of my career. For me, it has never been about the money, it's always been about my passion for the industry, and wanting to be in a career I'd really enjoy. Working for an operator such as Riverlink (sorry, I really should start calling it The Dartmouth Steam Railway and River Boat Company seeing as I work for them, but it's such a bloomin mouthful; especially when you're answering the phone!) was almost more than I'd ever dreamed of. Being involved with an operation devoted to being interesting! An operation that's there to be fun, offer something unique and evoke memories of bygone eras, to me, is much more exciting than trying to achieve a 2% growth in patronage from a certain suburb of a metropolitan City (although admittedly, that does excite me as well!). And so of course it was with open arms that I welcomed Jim's offer, and over the past month and a half, I genuinely could not be happier that I'd said yes. At the end of a journey that seemed like it had been turning against me, I have somehow managed to end up in what for me, is possibly one of the best jobs in the whole industry. 

Working at a smaller independent had always been my long term goal. Having the freedom to really make your own choices moreso than in one of the larger companies, as well as getting much more hands on with all aspects of the operation, rather than being 'restricted' to one certain role or function, was what I had always strived to work towards. To be in that position so early on in my career I feel is a true honour. My time at the company so far has been truly fantastic. The team not only on the buses, but on the boats and trains as well, are utterly brilliant. They're extremely knowledgable, full of energy (at least after a cup of tea, or two!), and have been very welcoming to me indeed, which I was somewhat surprised about considering that I am the youngest in the bus division by some 40 years! For its size, the company is run extremely professionally, and has evidently been finely honed over many years. And of course, I can't omit the fact that against all odds, I have managed to fulfill a lifelong dream of driving a Bristol VR in public service! I feel incredibly privileged to be among the very last people in the country to be driving a Bristol VR in stage carriage service in 2016, and to have been quite possibly, the very last person to ever be 'trained up' to work on a Bristol VR after 50 glorious years. 

So an incredible set of events over the past six months has led me to being in a wonderful position, with a lot more fun to come. No doubt then, there will be more to update you on over the coming months. I'm sure I've made many of you very jealous indeed...