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SMRT revamps pay and career path for bus drivers

Average Singaporean driver can earn up to $3,500 a month with overtime and incentives

[SINGAPORE] Public transport operator SMRT Corporation has rolled out a new scheme for its bus drivers that will see the average Singaporean driver earning up to $3,500 a month after overtime and performance incentives that reward safety, punctuality and customer service.

BT understands that the move might put SMRT's bus drivers on a par with its rival, SBS Transit.

A new career progression framework will give drivers opportunities to rise to supervisory positions with instructor responsibilities, SMRT said yesterday.

Analysts, however, remain bearish on SMRT because of the higher costs that the scheme will entail. Industry players also cite difficulties in getting local drivers for the job, even with a pay increase.

Under SMRT's new scheme, a master bus captain, the highest of seven pay grades, will drive 50-70 per cent of the time. He will have training and mentorship responsibilities, and needs to know 15 routes as well as undergo leadership management training.

Said Desmond Kuek, president and CEO of SMRT: "We hope a better-trained, energised and engaged workforce will ultimately create a more reliable and service-oriented bus service that our passengers can enjoy."

National Transport Workers' Union executive secretary Ong Chin Ang said that the new model would transform frontline roles as competent drivers hit a ceiling after just three promotions under the previous career scheme.

However, Roger Wong, general manager of Woodlands Transport, which has about 200 drivers, said that costs for private bus operators might increase as a result, with the going wage between $2,400 and $2,800 a month. "Someone has to pay for it. We just can't increase our prices just like that," he said.

Other operators said that it remained unclear if more locals - or indeed their own drivers - would be enticed to join SMRT following the move. This is because of the long hours and mundane conditions of public bus driving. Private bus drivers might have a greater variety of routes and a more flexible schedule. As for pay, drivers can hit $3,000 or $3,500 a month with a lot of overtime, they said.

Said a school bus operator who is trying to hire Malaysian drivers: "Raising wages may not help attract more locals. Even if we advertise and pay so high, we may not attract the right people. A lot of people who can work for us have actually reached retirement age and want to go slow."

SMRT has more than 2,100 drivers and operates a quarter of the public bus fleet. But its bus operations have been making operating losses for many years in a row now. Last November, 171 SMRT bus drivers from China made headlines when they went on strike over pay and living conditions. Since then, wage costs have increased.

SMRT shares fell a cent to $1.285 yesterday, near a seven-year low. Last week, SMRT reported a 57 per cent plunge in net profit to $14.4 million for its second quarter ended Sept 30, owing to higher staff and depreciation costs.

Analysts are almost universally bearish about SMRT. According to Bloomberg, the 12-month target price for the stock is $1.10, based on estimates by 11 analysts. "SMRT is playing catch up. I don't see how their bus operations can do well even with an increase in fares," an analyst said, referring to changes to the fare formula recommended by a committee earlier this week.

The elephant in the room is SBS Transit and its pool of almost 6,000 drivers. SBS already pays experienced local drivers around the $3,500-monthly range, BT understands.

But when asked about pay comparisons yesterday, Tammy Tan, SBS Transit's senior vice-president of corporate communications, kept mum. "We have, since May 2012, implemented a career progression model where bus captains showing talent, capability and potential are able to rise in the organisation," she said.