Jobs on the buses have come a long way since the time of Reg Varney. Since the state-owned National Bus Company was privatised in the 1980s, most of the small council-run services of yesteryear have been taken over by a handful of huge national operators whose constituent divisions now compete to run our local franchises.
But, while the dominance of ubiquitous brand names such as Stagecoach and First Great Western may irk those with nostalgic memories of polished red double-deckers and chirpy conductors, their emergence has revolutionised the industry's career structure. Today's big operators all boast graduate-recruitment schemes and a wealth of other opportunities for advancement, enabling everyone from drivers to mechanics to rise to the most senior ranks.
Stagecoach alone employs 20,000 people across its UK bus operations, which stretch from the Scottish Highlands to South-west England. Among its recent success stories is 25-year-old Sarah Longair, who joined its two-year graduate-training programme after completing a degree in maths and finance at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University in 2002.
Longair, who started on the standard Stagecoach graduate salary (currently £21,000), has doubled her income in her four years with the company, and is now operations manager at its Princess Road depot in Manchester. She admits that she stumbled into her career by accident, but says she is in no doubt she's in the right one. "Going back 10 years, I would never have thought I'd end up working in the bus industry, but now I wouldn't change it for the world," she says.
Longair applied for Stagecoach's graduate programme in the Christmas term of her final year at university; was invited for her first-round interview the following spring; and had enrolled by September. Like all graduate trainees, she had to learn every aspect of the business, from the bottom up. An eight-week spell in the engineering department was followed by a course to obtain her passenger carrying vehicle (PCV) licence; two weeks driving the buses for real - and a fortnight on late-night shifts cleaning them out.
It's a similar story for graduate recruits at Arriva, another of Britain's so-called "big six" operators, which employs some 17,000 people in its UK bus divisions and 18,000 across mainland Europe and Scandinavia. Here trainees start on £22,000 and spend 18 months on a similarly comprehensive scheme.
It's not only graduates who land the plum jobs, though: the company is proud of its progression rates for those without degrees. A typical route for a recruit is to start out as a driver, before being promoted to local supervisor, depot manager, then area manager. Aside from the career prospects, jobs on the buses also bring you various perks; most notably a travel-pass for you and at least one other family member, entitling you to free travel in your locality, and often way beyond.
Though the bus industry remains hugely male-dominated - even today 94 per cent of employees are men - firms like Stagecoach, Arriva and Go Ahead are working hard to address this, by investing millions in flexible working practices and recruitment drives aimed at women. All three recently collaborated with Transport for London on a campaign branded "Calling All Women With Drive", which was designed to explode "fictions" surrounding the industry - including the apparently widely held perception that buses are too cumbersome for women to steer. There are signs that such positive discrimination is starting to work: in Manchester the proportion of female bus drivers is now up to 15 per cent, and rising.
Tony Depledge, 58, joined the bus industry in 1970 as a driver for the long-since defunct Midland Red company. He now spends his days liaising with mandarins and lobbying ministers for improvements to the nation's road infrastructure, in his role as Arriva's director of transport policy development.
Depledge insists that, despite the statistics, attitudes towards women have changed hugely in his 36 years in the industry. "When I started, there were no women drivers. It was seen as a full-time man's job," he recalls. "Now, with the introduction of part-time contracts and flexible hours, this has definitely changed."