Israel

In Israel, A Second Career As A Bus Driver

People over-40 and over-50 who are laid off find it increasingly difficult to find a job or switch careers. But opportunities are arising in unlikely places.

Bus driver in Jerusalem
Bus driver in Jerusalem
Ari Libsker

HOLON — George Stern, 58, sets out on a new round-trip on the line 172 that starts in this coastal town south of Tel Aviv.

It is 3 p.m. and he had hoped to have a 30-minute break, but there were traffic jams on the way back to Holon. In the end, he did not even have a moment to take a break. The bus just left the station and rolls slowly towards the center of Holon.

If you were an ordinary passenger on the bus, you would not have imagined that Stern has been a bus driver for just four months.

Even Stern himself finds it hard to believe. Until the age of 57, he never would have dreamed to find himself behind the wheel of a public bus. All his life, he'd worked as an electrician in the “original Israeli high-tech” he says with a strong Romanian accent that makes him sound like he sings the words he says.

“At my age, you are the first to go, and afterwards it’s hard to find a job," Stern says. "I looked for a job in my sector for a while, but it was only minimum wage which is not easy to live on these days.”

Our conversation halts every time there’s a bus stop. In the center of Holon, the stops are packed with people and Stern has to collect the people’s money.

At one point, a woman sitting in the middle of the bus screams “you are a bad driver!” Stern is busy breaking a 200 shekels ($57) banknote. The woman screams again “why aren’t you driving?” Stern does not react. I explain to her that he is dealing with the money of another passenger, to which she answers that with all due respect, drivers can drive and deal with money at the same time.

Stern asks me to let it go. “In the past four months that I have been working here I’ve learned to be indifferent towards some people," he says with a smile. "Let her complain.”

The new bus driver explains that a local works council has agreements that will be sure he is supported until retirement age. "It is the first time in a while that I feel stable. I couldn’t continue living like as I was before."

The idea of working for Dan Bus Company came from a friend who is also a bus driver, who told him “to try it out." It took him a while before considering that option, after sitting home for a year-and-a-half jobless.

Driving to a second career

An entire generation is aware of situations like Stern’s: job security for the over-50 set is increasingly a problem in Israel. Even in his field, which is considered to be sought-after, he struggled since arriving in Israel in 1984. Poorly paid, he moved from factory to factory, to human power companies through contractors.

Now, after 60 hours of driving classes and training, he is one of the 350 people older than 40 who became drivers for the Dan company in the past five years. Most of them had been laid off recently and discovered that there is little place in the Israeli work market for older people.

Dan Company represents, with a twist of irony, a rare symbol of hope. “We are not doing this for philanthropic reasons”, says Dan company CEO, Shmuel Refaeli, “We actually need drivers. We need to replace 60 to 70 drivers who retire every year. And we are also expanding. Therefore, we need to recruit 100 drivers every year. Most of our drivers are past 45 years old, so we know that they make better drivers.”

He adds, to punctuate his company's situation: “20 year olds don’t want to become bus drivers.”

That is exactly the point. What keeps away the young from a job driving a bus is what attracts older people, having a choice. Young people have the choice and opportunities of doing something else, while people over-40 are discovering that those options are vanishing.

The salary at Dan Bus Company is hardly incredible, but not insulting either. A new driver working a standard, full-time shift of six days a week earns a gross salary of $2,300. That can be boosted by working night shifts and weekends. “There are many advantages in this job,” says CEO Refaeli. “It is not hard physical work, and you don’t stay at the same place all day. You also work with people." And not all of them complain about your driving.


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