A global shortage of professional drivers is threatening the bus and coach industry. In the US it is estimated that one quarter of all drivers will be 65 years or older by 2030. As drivers hang up their hats, agencies are struggling to find replacements due to a variety of factors such as compensation and safety. Here, Roger Brereton, head of sales at bus steering system manufacturer Pailton Engineering, asks what’s next for the world’s driver shortage?

We live in a world where you would expect there to be significant impetus behind increasing passenger transport, particularly buses. As governments commit to hit emission reduction targets, increased investment in passenger transport seems like an obvious next step. One fully loaded double decker bus can take 75 cars off the road. Yet in the bus and coach sector, we are witnessing the most acute shortage of drivers in decades.

The problem stretches back to before the pandemic. A 2022 report from the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) revealed a worrying picture across America. 71 per cent of 117 American transit agencies had to cut or delay services due to worker shortage issues.

While the pandemic compounded the problem, reports suggest that this shortfall would have occurred with or without the pandemic. The 2022 APTA report also stated that 92 per cent of public transit agencies are having difficulty hiring new employees, especially for bus operation positions. The same report also acknowledged that 66 per cent of the transit agencies are having difficulty retaining employees.

While some have blamed the image of the profession for the ongoing recruitment issues, others have pointed to low pay and poor working conditions as key factors. This picture was certainly reinforced by the TransitCenter report, for example. Another complicating factor is the prospect of bus drivers leaving to become HGV drivers. As fleet operators offered higher wages to solve their own driver shortage, they further added to the problems being faced by bus operators.

It is unfortunately easier to highlight the problems than it is to offer clear solutions. While transit agencies are bearing the primary responsibility in changing the working conditions for bus operators with signing bonuses, increased pay and improved hiring process, state governments have an important role to play as well. State governments can support transit agencies with these challenges by funding transit operations, expediting commercial driver’s licenses and even implementing second chance programs, which give access to job training opportunities for those who face barriers to employment due to former incarcerations or recovering addicts.

If political capital and increased funding are surely an inevitable part of any solution, engineering solutions will also be needed. The appeal of the sector – both for passengers and drivers – will undoubtedly be enhanced if the effort to increase electrification is successful. The design of electric buses is something that will continue to evolve and improve.

One area of interest, for example, is the placement of the battery. Until engineers coalesce around an agreed design, design flexibility will be important. We can perhaps expect to see batteries on the roofs of e-buses. Arguably more important will be breakthroughs in infrastructure. Fast charging infrastructure will be the key area of focus, but other solutions should not be ruled out. One potential avenue of exploration is battery swapping, for example.

Better designed driver cabins may also prove effective in helping improve both the image of the profession and working conditions for drivers. At Pailton Engineering, we’ve been developing innovations that can help in this regard. In an office, if your employees are struggling with back pain, it would make sense to invest in better desks and comfier chairs. Why not extend this logic to the bus driver cabin, particularly given the widespread presence of back pain and other musculoskeletal disorders drivers face as a result of their work?

Adjustable steering columns improve driver ergonomics and therefore working conditions in the bus cabin. The problem for a bus driver is that, unlike their counterparts in the HGV industry, driver shift patterns mean they are regularly swapping with other drivers. We have therefore designed an electric memory steering column which can remember the correct ergonomic adjustments for each driver.

An ageing profession reporting problems with low pay and recruitment is not on the face of it a place for optimistic forecasts. However, the bus and coach sector could emerge from this troubled period in better shape if it received sufficient political attention and investment. The need for rapid adoption of e-mobility has the potential to change the industry’s fortunes. Hopefully, ergonomic steering wheel design can also play its part in a better future for drivers.

Pailton Engineering supplies steering parts for heavy vehicles, including buses, electric buses and coaches. To find out more visit