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A New Age Dawns for School Bus Maintenance Training

A veteran maintenance professional I spoke with at STN EXPO Reno last month commented that the industry has a challenge to overcome. It is no surprise that the mechanic or technician shortage in some school districts is every bit as bad as the school bus driver shortage. And that has led to a steep learning curve for those staff members that have recently been hired or soon will be.

On one hand, a promise of electric school buses is that they bring new technology, which is sure to attract new, young talent. But ESBs also can alienate more seasoned employees. This is why workforce development is one of the priorities of the five-year, $5 billion Clean School Bus Program.

Of greater concern, however, the attendee added that far too many of the school bus mechanics he comes across, both novice and veteran, alike, are lacking in both experience and the willingness to step out of their comfort zones. He said too many school districts today, sometimes because of staff shortages but more often due to a lack of acumen, opt to send out more complex repairs to third-party companies rather than address those issues in-house.

“We fix things. That’s what we do,” he said. Meanwhile, the three expert instructors of last month’s National School Bus Inspection Training that took place at STN EXPO Reno Alan Fidler of the Metropolitan School District of Lawrence Township in Indiana, Ariel
Rodriguez of Humble Independent School District, and his neighbor Bobby Williams from Cypress-Fairbanks ISD in Houston, Texas—noted during the day one classroom session that several of the attendees indicated they were unfamiliar with basic maintenance concepts. All three men are former champions of the NAPT America’s Best School Bus Inspector Training and Competition. Williams told me that he learned some of these mechanics who attended the Reno training were new to the industry, within the past couple of years.

The next day, during hands-on training at Washoe County School District, a maintenance manager from the Midwest relayed to me that his rural school buses are in particularly bad shape because the drivers “beat them up” daily. He has now been enlisted to inspect those buses as well, which is why he registered, all while eying retirement and trying to entice his assistant to take over.

These anecdotes illustrate the need for continuous maintenance training and providing balance between advanced and introductory concepts. With the advent of ESBs, training is more important now than ever. In the short term, the school bus manufacturers largely want their certified dealers working on ESBs. The time will soon come when the rank and file at school districts and bus companies will need to know how to safely service these vehicles, including the white fleet that is quickly going the battery electric route as well.

The transition to electric is slowly relegating engine service and oil changes to things of the past. Still, many of the same service and repair requirements as in internal combustion school buses will remain, notes Tony Lavezzo, the fleet manager for Tahoe Truckee Unified School District in California, in this month’s Special Report.

The industry cannot wait until ESBs come out of warranty to learn the intricacies of high-voltage safety and EV supply equipment, for example. Programs like the ones developed by community colleges in California and New York as well as new ESB safety and repair certifications from the Institute of Automotive Service Excellence are paramount, in lockstep with the school bus manufacturers. Look for STN EXPO to provide additional opportunities in 2024 while also evolving the school bus inspection training.

These opportunities, however, are finite. While STN EXPO Reno boasted an all-time high in attendance last month, the number of attendees were a miniscule fraction of the estimated 25,000 school bus mechanics nationwide. Just as school bus driver training is a hallmark of this industry, so too must be maintenance training. If you or a member of your staff attended training this summer, be sure they are documenting the lessons learned, with the goal of developing individual programs that pass the knowledge throughout the shop and the district. Traditionally, mechanics of all types have been unwilling to share their expertise. This information hoarding must end. The industry only gets better by learning from each other. The safety of the schoolchildren literally ride on it

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the August 2023 issue of School Transportation News.

Related: (STN Podcast E125) Shop Talk: Cracking Open the School Bus Mechanic Shortage
Related: Iowa Farmer, School Bus Mechanic Shares the Importance of Working Hard
Related: WATCH: STN EXPO Reno 2023
Related: Identifying Risk Factors, Prevention Strategies Discussed at STN EXPO Reno

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