During a discussion with a school administrator about the government’s move to ease schooltime traffic jams by staggering school timings, she told me that there was a bigger problem staring schools in their faces, now that in-person classes had started – there simply weren’t enough bus drivers to handle the demand.
After all, school bus drivers have to have unique skill sets other than managing their vehicle: they have to drive extra safely with a bus full of screaming, squabbling and playing kids crawling up their necks and every time they start and stop their buses, they have to make sure the passengers are out of harm’s way.
The trouble is, during the pandemic years, when schools went Zoom, many of the transportation companies had to let go of their skilled staff. The bus drivers found jobs driving other public transportation which were emotionally less taxing – like buses with adult passengers or trucks with goods that stayed put. Now they are not too keen on coming back to their old jobs with the additional responsibility but no extra monetary benefits.
It’s not just workers with critical skills who are in short supply in the workspace – even entry-level staff and workers with basic skills are not available. This summer was plagued with lost and delayed luggage for hundreds of travellers – did you guess that it was because so many baggage handlers in major airports were let go during the no-travel pandemic days and now they don’t want to return to the less-than-inspiring work they were doing?
We were politely told that the coffee shop at Heathrow departures, where we went before checking in, would shut its sitting area and only serve takeaway coffee after 7pm because of a shortage of staff.
Add to this the return to office. While schoolchildren – and school staff – have little say in the matter, many industries are struggling to get their staff accustomed to ‘hybrid work’ where they come in to office for part of the week.
HR surveys have found that if an organisation were to go back to a fully on-site arrangement, it would risk losing up to 39 per cent of its workforce. Every week we hear of big companies ramping up their incentives to woo employees to come back to the office – while substantial monetary benefits and added flexibility are top of the list, other enticements such as themed lunch time food trucks are also proving effective.
But this is also the right time to go back to the panicked promises we made to ourselves and to each other – remember them? Work-life balance, getting off the treadmill and spending quality time with family. And, for companies all over the world, it was a time to reassess how they would treat their workforce, especially women.
Equal pay, gender equality, diversity in the workforce – why even life-changing incentives such as extended maternity and paternity facilities, child care in the premises, not freezing career promotion because employees take time off for family commitments – yes, women are primary carers of children and the elderly but men, too, take time off to meet parental care obligations.
When companies recast their perks, the post-covid world should look friendlier. Otherwise we have learnt nothing.