The global pandemic has caused many new shortages and exacerbated existing ones. Walk into the supermarket—or any store, for that matter—and you’ll instantly recall the early days of COVID-19, with a run on everything from toilet paper to meat, milk to bread. Fuel prices are spiking. Used cars are being sold at new car prices.
There is also the problem of not enough people in the workforce. Help wanted signs adorn nearly every restaurant window, which doesn’t bode well for the ongoing school bus driver shortage.
Employees across the board are revolting at a lack of compensation and thus looking elsewhere. It’s become a job seeker’s market, with companies fighting for the same applicants and offering incentives in hopes of luring away much needed talent from competitors. Look no further than the 46 million people in August who quit their jobs, the highest such number since the feds started recording it over two decades ago.
It’s all in response to stagnant wage growth brought on by the Great Recession, and businesses are paying the price. Shortages of everything—automotive microchips, steel, lumber, fuel and food—while still tied to a lack of some resources are increasingly the direct result of a shortage of employees willing or able to transport these products to market. We see the very same forces at play in student transportation. What transportation director ever thought they’d hear their dealer warn that a new bus order made today won’t be delivered for two more years?
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Like school bus drivers, we also know that mechanics are becoming harder and harder to come by. Blame the lack of vocational schools or tech company’s wooing young people away with the promise of remote work via a laptop while sitting on a beach somewhere. It sure beats turning a wrench in a hot school bus garage. Or as someone at STN EXPO Indianapolis remarked last month, the younger generation simply doesn’t want to get dirty. An over-generalization, sure, but there is some truth to it. Evidence: The U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commercial Construction Index in September found that 93 percent of contractors are moderately to highly concerned about finding skilled workers in the next six months. And as we learn this month, the number of other student transportation workers such as dispatchers and driver trainers are also dwindling.
Here’s a thought. Offer free or subsidized childcare to district employees who are also parents. Pew Center Research last fall found that an increasing number of parents reported that the COVID-19 pandemic has made it more difficult to juggle work and childcare, which has become even more complicated when both spouses have jobs. Women historically have had a harder time than men juggling their careers and raising children, as they often assume the lion’s share of child-rearing responsibilities during the day. Perhaps that’s the impetus for women also earning only 82 cents for every dollar a man makes, according to a study published in March by the website Payscale.com. So, it’s not surprising that 57 percent of women said via the Pew survey that the pandemic has made providing childcare more difficult, compared to 47 of men who said the same thing.
Forget for a moment the low wages or a lack of hours not to mention no benefits or a long wait to obtain commercial driver’s license and ask yourself, how many of your school bus drivers—new applicants or veterans— have you lost out of a concern for childcare? How many of those were women? And what if anything did you do or could you have done about it?
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The call for school districts to provide staff with free childcare or stipends is nothing new. But the pandemic renewed interest in programs like the one implemented last spring by the Los Angeles Unified School District, which offered employees $500 a month to help pay for preschool and daycare for children ages 5 and younger. Though that program ended on July 31, the precedence is set. Meanwhile, Spring Independent School District’s transportation facility near Houston has provided free onsite daycare to the children of employees for years. Is your district prepared to offer something similar? Maybe that’s not feasible in your district. Then what is?
True, daycares are not immune to the worker shortage. Hopefully the approval of COVID-19 vaccines for children ages 5-11 by the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention helps to change that. But shouldn’t the largest childcentric organizations in communities—public school systems—take a lead in crafting programs that both address the needs of their parenting employees?