Survey results released by the three national school bus industry associations paint a dismal picture of the national school bus driver shortage.
A Midwest contractor told School Transportation News on Monday that a school bus driver emergency is a more apt description of the current environment. Meanwhile, a Midwest school district transportation director said the current driver shortage has resulted in the “craziest” school startup he’s experienced in his 25-year career. Those were merely two perspectives provided by readers recently, most of which have commented that the bus driver shortage is the worst yet.
On Tuesday, the survey results shared by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation (NASDPTS), and the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) back up those claims.
Nearly 1,500 student transporters responded to the survey conducted over the summer. With a reported 95-percent confidence level, it found that 51 percent said they are experiencing a “severe” or “desperate” bus driver shortage, and nearly two-thirds stated the driver shortage is currently their No. 1 challenge. Only 1 percent of respondents said the shortage is not an issue. But anecdotally, several transportation directors have told STN in recent weeks that despite not being short regular drivers, they don’t currently have enough substitute drivers to step in and address COVID-19 quarantines or retirements.
No region of the country is immune, either. The South is faring the best as two-thirds of respondents there noted that operations have been altered because of a lack of drivers. The worst changes are recorded out West, where 80 percent of people said they have had to alter transportation. Things are hardly better in the Northeast (79 percent) and Midwest (77 percent).
“While the industry seems to struggle with driver shortages each year, this year’s shortage has a different feel to it and having the data to really understand it is invaluable,” said NASDPTS Executive Director Ronna Weber. “We hear anecdotal reports all the time but being able to point to real information will ensure we are responding to this situation in the best manner possible for our members.”
The data shows that nine out of 10 elementary and middle schools have been impacted by school bus service changes, and 83 percent of high schools have seen transportation alterations.
Not surprisingly, half of the respondents said pay rates are a major factor that affects their ability to recruit and retain drivers. The next biggest factor (45 percent) is the delay in the commercial driver’s license process. The survey reported that the average number of days in the hiring process, when the applicant earns their CDL and is officially hired by a school district or bus company, is 16. That is precisely how long on average it takes for new drivers to be onboarded in the Midwest and South, with the Northeast averaging 17 days, and the West averaging 22 days.
Other main factors reported are the availability of benefits and the hours available to work, both of which were cited by 38 percent of respondents.
“This survey reaffirms individual feedback that we have heard from our members that both in-district and contract school bus operators are facing serious challenges with respect to staffing of the driver pool this fall. While we are vitally concerned about the short-term implications of the shortage, our organization looks forward to engaging on potential solutions to address this vexing issue,” commented NSTA Executive Director Curt Macysyn.
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The three national associations said they are presenting a joint webinar after Labor Day to provide more detail on the survey and its findings.
The survey sought to determine the extent of bus driver shortages, whether the trend is getting better or worse, and which solutions are being used to remedy the problem. Analyses were conducted to determine where the survey responses were significantly different among segments by geographic region, respondents’ job title, or size of the company/school district; how organizations recruit bus drivers, to understand more about the interviewing and hiring process; and what steps are being taken by companies and school districts to retain drivers.