Shortage of drivers pushes ComfortDelGro to end 4 school bus contracts by June school holidays
A subsidiary of transport giant ComfortDelGro has terminated school bus contracts with four primary schools, becoming the latest operator to stop services due to a lack of drivers.
The four schools served by ComfortDelGro Bus – Casuarina Primary and Meridian Primary in Pasir Ris, Nan Hua Primary in Clementi, and Northland Primary in Yishun – are now looking for new operators to take over when the new semester starts after the June school holidays.
ComfortDelGro Bus is one of the largest players in the private bus industry, and this is the most number of schools to be affected by a single bus service operator pulling out in 2023.
The operator informed the four schools on April 1 that it will stop the service by early June.
Ms Tammy Tan, group chief corporate affairs officer at ComfortDelGro, said it has been increasingly difficult to recruit new bus drivers amid the tight labour market.
The subcontractors that the company uses for these school contracts were also pulling out because they could not find enough drivers, she added.
It is an industry practice for the school bus contract holder to work with other bus service operators to provide the needed number and type of buses.
According to Ms Tan, ComfortDelGro Bus has been providing school bus services to five primary schools for the last 20 years. The latest decision means only one primary school will remain in its fold.
In addition to the four schools, Zhonghua Primary in Serangoon and Valour Primary in Punggol are also in the midst of a tender for a new operator.
Both schools are served by Longlim, which will pull out when the current school term ends.
Longlim operation manager Ang Zi Wei said the company could not continue the two school contracts after some of its drivers left.
He added that the revenue from the current contracts does not allow the firm to raise salaries to retain these drivers while coping with the rising cost of operations.
Longlim has lost more than 18 of its 60 or so drivers in 2023 and the company has not been able to fill these vacancies, he said.
Among them, eight were dedicated to driving school buses, while others were deployed for other types of work such as transporting tourists and workers.
Up to 10 per cent of the company’s fleet of more than 60 buses is lying idle due to the driver shortage, he added.
“There is high demand for transport services now, but we simply do not have the manpower to do the work,” Mr Ang said.
Industry insiders believe the six primary schools may have difficulty finding experienced bus companies to run their school bus services, given the manpower crunch and the fact that these operators would already have allocated their resources for the year.
When asked if his company would be keen to bid for any of the primary schools, Mr Lionel Lim from Bedok Transport, which already serves a few schools, said: “We are short of drivers as it is to fulfil the contracts we have on hand”.
Other companies gave similar responses.
Singapore School Transport Association (SSTA) spokesman Darry Lim painted a bleak picture on the outlook for the school transport industry, saying the driver shortage can only worsen.
He estimates that the industry could lose more than 900 drivers a year between 2023 and 2025 – the equivalent of 30 per cent of the total number of active bus drivers today.
These may be a mix of those who choose to leave or are forced to retire because they have reached the age limit of 75 for the Bus Driver Vocational Licence, which can be held by a Singapore citizen, permanent resident or work permit holder.
Mr Darry Lim’s estimation is based on the assumption that around 80 per cent out of the nearly 12,000 buses registered as at end-2022 are driven. The figure excludes buses used by public transport operators.
Given that the quota of foreign workers a company is allowed to hire is based on the number of locals it employs, operators may end up losing more than the number of drivers retiring or quitting because they also forfeit the headcount for foreign drivers.
In a written parliamentary reply to a question from Workers’ Party MP Dennis Tan on the adequacy of bus drivers on May 8, Manpower Minister Tan See Leng said his ministry was working with the Ministry of Education, Ministry of Transport and the Land Transport Authority to provide “targeted support for public transport operators and school bus operators with additional foreign worker quotas on a time-limited basis”.
Mr Darry Lim said it takes more than 1½ years for a new driver to get the vocational licence and be proficient at the job.
By his reckoning, the industry may be already “two to three years” behind in tackling the issue of driver shortage.
The SSTA represents around 80 per cent of the school transport industry, and many of its members are operators aged between 55 and 60 who own fewer than six buses, he noted.
Some of them choose to leave the trade when they fail to secure school bus contract renewals. Others quit when the certificates of entitlement for their buses are due to expire.
Mr Lim said bus owners in this age group would rather stop working than take on new loans to finance a replacement bus.
This, in turn, would further reduce the supply of buses, as well as drivers, to support schools.
“The reality is that there will be fewer and fewer buses for schoolchildren. Like it or not, we will all have to accept that.”