First starts Polish driving school

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The Independent Online

FirstGroup, the biggest bus operator in the UK, has recruited 1,000 drivers from Poland and has set up a training centre for them in the country.

The bus and rail group, reporting interim figures yesterday, said that Polish drivers had led to much greater reliability and a dramatic improvement in staff retention rates. FirstGroup reported the first improvement in margins in its UK bus business for four years.

The company began hiring Polish drivers 18 months ago, as it had proved difficult to fill vacancies with Britons. There are now 1,000 Poles among its 20,000drivers. Moir Lockhead, the chief executive, said: "They are good workers, there's no doubt. With good attendance."

FirstGroup initially used an agency in Poland but has now set up its own training facility. Recruits are taught English and about the British way of life - for instance they are shown videos of the comedy series Only Fools and Horses. They are also taught "bus speak" - key phrases they might hear or need while working, such as "come on, get off", quipped Mr Lockhead.

"They [the Poles] are pretty fundamental to our future. They have been very good for the company and for the economy, I think," Mr Lockhead said.

Other UK bus companies have also recruited from Poland, but not on the same scale as FirstGroup. Stagecoach has about 100 Polish drivers out of 15,000 and uses a training agency in Warsaw.

FirstGroup said that staff turnover had halved to about 25 per cent since the Poles arrived. They are often given a choice of UK locations and usually chose those areas with an established Polish community - such as Bristol, Bath and London. Polish drivers are paid the same as their British counterparts, between £9 and £10 an hour.

FirstGroup half-year results were hit by an extra £23m in fuel costs but operating profit still increased by 13 per cent to £59.9m. The company reported that its new First Great Western and First Capital Connect rail franchises were showing double-digit revenue growth.