As the percentage of immigrants working in public transport grows larger, 6D takes a closer look at the pros and cons of the profession.

“Why don’t you become a bus driver?” my girlfriend’s mother suggested to me over dinner upon first moving to Finland a year ago from abroad. “What do you mean become a bus driver?” I asked. “All the bus drivers in Helsinki are foreigners now days,” she replied.

Immediately I became intrigued. I romanticised the idea of cruising through avenues lined with snow-capped trees. The glistening bright orange sunlight would bounce off the clouds in the outer districts of Helsinki, as those long, dark winter nights finally drew to a close.

But how realistic was this view? Fast forward to the present day and I have since found other means of gainful employment, but this thought lingers whenever I step aboard a bus.

Who’s in the driver’s seat?

Four main companies are responsible for the functioning of public transport in the Capital Region, namely Helsingin Bussiliikenne, Nobina, Veolia and Pohjolan Kaupunkiliikenne Oy. According to Helsingin Bussiliikenne’s HR manager, Jussi Mertanen 47.6 per cent of Helsingin Bussiliikenne’s 550 bus drivers are foreigners.

In fact, altogether there are currently well over 1,500 foreign bus drivers in the Helsinki, Vantaa and Espoo regions alone, of which Mertanen estimates approximately 50 per cent are foreign nationals.

“We are looking for people who we think are able to do this very demanding duty,” states Mertanen. “They must have skills relating to transportation, good customer service and behaviour.”

However, not all staff is sourced locally. Estonian Toomas Lants, a bus driver for Helsingin Bussiliikenne, was recruited whilst driving buses in Cambridgeshire, UK, in 2011. Approached by the then desperately understaffed company, the only requirement was the possession of a D-Class driving license and a basic understanding of Finnish.

Lants recalls that the company helped him find an apartment within three days of moving to Finland. He was immediately put to work driving between 35-to-40 hours per week, with a starting salary of between 2,300 and 2,600 euros per month.

Not all transport systems are created equal

Contrary to the opposing views shared by bus companies and former employees, the situation for tram drivers seems to be different altogether. An article in IIta-Sanomat last year stated that applications for Helsinki tram driver positions were more competitive than doctor positions. With a starting salary of 2,931 euros per month, only 12 of the 400 applicants ended up being selected for training – a mere three per cent, for those reaching for their calculator. To put this into context, the admittance rate for a law degree is six per cent and is apparently even higher for medical school.

Why go in a foreign direction?

Given the growing prominence of foreigners in the sector, one begins to wonder why Finns don’t want a job with free training, a starting salary that’s more than double the minimum wage and nearly four times as much as the regional unemployment grant.

Mertanen feels there have been a number of trends contributing to the decline of Finns working in what can be categorised as “service industry” jobs as a whole. One of the most significant has been the generally increasing entrepreneurial spirit amongst Finnish youth of starting and managing their own businesses. “They don’t want to work for the same company for 30 years,” he observes.

International studies have recently revealed a similar global trend in the increase in entrepreneurship, which sees more and more people choosing versatile careers where they are free to travel, work from home or apply their skills internationally.

Others have a different opinion.

“It is a low threshold, high-earning job that you can do without real Finnish language skills and very little training,” explains former bus driver Samuli Saren. “I know many drivers who I can’t communicate with in either Finnish or English. Lots of drivers are foreigners so it is also easy to blend in.”

Saren was first attracted to the job by the good pay for a relatively short amount of training. “All it needs is six months of free schooling,” he states. “Training took me six months at Työ Teho Seura’s Aikuiskoulutuskeskus (TTS adult schooling centre).”

Feeling like he was his own boss and enjoying the relative freedom once on the job was key to his job satisfaction. “I also just loved to drive,” Saren recalls. “I drove anything and everything I could, it didn’t matter if it was a lawn mower, a moped or a tuned up car, I just wanted to drive it.”

However, Saren soon felt that the job lacked perspective and vision.

“After I got behind the wheel that was it. There was plenty of negative feedback from customers and bosses, with no good feedback no matter how well the job was done. It is also a highly stressful job where the driver has to monitor what happens inside and out at all times. The driver is responsible for up to 100 people, including those inside the bus and others on the road. One mistake may cost people their lives.”

Tendering change

Saren also points to the tendering that commenced in the mid-‘90s began to erode the job’s benefits and good atmosphere.

“When tendering came the whole system changed. Workdays were constructed by computer programs in order to save as much time and buses as possible. This lead to such things as bosses timing how long it took to walk from the registration desk to the furthest corner of the yard, to see how long it took for driver to get there.”

But for now, as the unemployment rate remains high among the immigrant community here, regardless of the perceived pros and cons of a job in the public transport sector, it still puts food on the table for many newcomers here in Finland

Thomas Poole
Image: Tapio Mäkinen