Student transporters are trained to jump into action at a moment’s notice, to move students from point A to point B. In an emergency, school buses just as quickly mobilize to perform evacuations or, as we have witnessed during the pandemic, help with the delivery of food and supplies. It is fitting as a school bus contractor recently told us the school bus driver shortage—probably the worst ever—was indeed a driver emergency.
The pronouncement came on the heels of survey results reported by the three national associations, that over half of student transporters who responded over the summer said they are “desperate” for drivers.
Meanwhile, at no time have school buses garnered so much attention in Congress and the White House. Contained in the expansive $3.5 trillion federal legislative package tied to the infrastructure bill are several provisions that one could argue might make the jobs of school bus drivers easier. But nowhere do you see the proposal of a school bus driver bailout.
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Money is no silver bullet solution, I have heard consultants say, with their six-figure incomes. The cynic in me rolls his eyes when hearing that an employee values other things besides or even before money. But the statement can also be true. Not always, sure, but few school bus drivers applied to get rich quick. I get it. I certainly didn’t major in journalism nearly 30 years ago to retire early, if at all.
But if anyone deserves to make a living wage (and who doesn’t?), it is a school bus driver. There are few professions that are so vital to society yet so under-appreciated, misunderstood even. But will school district politics allow for substantial driver pay wage increases?
A look at some numbers illustrates the disconnect. According to a driver salary survey we conducted in April, the average starting wage nationwide for a new school bus driver is $19 an hour. On paper, things don’t seem so bad. If working a full 40 hours a week and 12 months a year, that starting wage equates to nearly $40,000 a year. The average max pay is $25 an hour, or $52,000 a year. And that’s before overtime. Yay.
But the problem we very quickly realize is that these figures assume the drivers are full time and employed for the full year, which means they would also be drawing health and other benefits. In reality, many school bus drivers are considered temporary or seasonal workers. Yes, they can be eligible to receive unemployment during off-school times, but how truly satisfied can one be with a profession that can’t or won’t hire you full-time and that requires you to regularly go on the dole? Oh, and for peanuts while driving 60 kids?
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Of course, other obstacles exist to being a school bus driver, such as federal overreach into training, bottlenecks in the CDL process, etc. It’s encouraging that at least one congressional representative is championing a CDL specific to school bus drivers. But I also repeatedly hear and see in survey results that drivers want guaranteed hours. They want health benefits. They want upward mobility. It all comes back to compensation.
It should come as no surprise that in the same survey we conducted in the spring, 82 percent of responding transportation directors and supervisors said they need more drivers. So, what’s a school district to do? Las month, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker opted for calling in the National Guard, usually reserved for wartime or in response to great civil unrest or natural disaster. That’s scary for a number of reasons. There must be a better way.
How do you treat your drivers? Do you value their insights and listen to them? Do you inspire them to be and do more? Or do you write them off as just drivers. Maybe you are close to retirement and figure the driver shortage is the next director’s problem. Isn’t a better solution to instill clear career paths for your drivers—and all your staff members—that create buy-in and future stability and success for your department?
As one of those expensive albeit extremely smart consultants once said, show me a transportation director who is suffering through a school bus shortage and I’ll show you one that is not. They might be harder to find in the current climate, but they are out there. So go find them.
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2021 issue of School Transportation News.