Transport Minister Michael Wood says the nationwide shortage of bus drivers is a “crisis”.
Wellington is about 120 bus drivers short – a fifth of its full-time roster. The shortage has been growing for years, recently causing almost 2000 trips to be cancelled during some weeks leaving passengers waiting for hours. Wellington Greater Regional Council has cut services three times since July last year; 181 bus trips a day have been cut since October. Bus operator Metlink says there will still be some ad hoc trip cancellations.
At current rates it’s expected Wellington will be over 300 drivers short within the next decade – without considering the Government’s goal of increasing public transport usage. The shortfall is reducing the attractiveness of a job that Gordon Tait, previous HR manager of NZ Bus in Wellington, says is “unpalatable to many” due to the work hours, narrow streets, and uncivilised passenger behaviour. Both the owner of NZ Bus, Kinetic, and the Tramways Union representing drivers agree that drivers in Wellington have the best pay and conditions of any drivers in the country.
Council spent $240,000 on recruitment campaigns, but the number of bus drivers decreased.
The driver shortage in Auckland is similar per capita, with a deficit of around 500 drivers. Almost a tenth of Auckland bus trips in the first nine months of the year were cancelled. Auckland Transport responded on November 6th with the removal of over 800 daily bus trips.
Government cause, Government solution?
Nationally the shortfall was significant even pre-pandemic. Then the Government closed the borders, greatly reducing our overall labour supply, and attempted to increase demand by halving fares from April 2022 until January 2023. Stimulating demand in the face of a supply shortage meant something had to give. That something was increased overtime for drivers and reduced reliability of service, angering commuters and further stressing drivers.
On October 30th the Government announced it is giving $61 million over the next four years to public transport operators who raise driver wages. The intent is to work toward a $30 wage in urban areas and attract more drivers.
The head of NZ Bus owner Kinetic says acute staff shortages are hitting industries across the country because of current immigration settings and the lasting impacts of COVID-19. National’s Spokesperson for Immigration Eric Stanford says Treasury warned the Government of labour shortages over a year ago, and in spite of this the Accredited Employer Work Visa wasn’t opened until July this year, resulting in higher inflation and interest rates.