In what could be the worst shortage experienced in the history of school transportation, industry leaders nationwide are imploring strategies to help combat a lack of bus drivers. Three local transportation directors in New York state discussed their strategies during a recent webinar co-hosted by Transfinder and the New York Association of Pupil Transportation (NYAPT).
In a recent survey conducted by NYAPT and sent to the top managers in their respective operations, Executive Director David Christopher shared during the July 29 webinar that out of 136 respondents, 83 percent said they were not adequately staffed for September school start-up. Meanwhile, 78 percent said they would not be able to hire enough bus drivers to cover their regular home-to-school bus routes in time for the new school year, and 49 percent characterized the bus driver shortage situation as severe to desperate. Over 58 percent of respondents said the pandemic has caused their driver shortage situation to worsen, Christopher shared.
“Our members are struggling to recruit and train as many drivers as they can,” Christopher told School Transportation News. “The pool of applicants is very slim due to many factors such as concerns about the pandemic, liberal unemployment availability, and competition from package delivery companies, along with others. This is a difficult environment at this time to recruit bus drivers.”
He added that NYAPT has formed a committee to investigate the issue and to provide resulting suggestions to assist members.
“We will be providing information on best practices for hiring and recruiting, advocacy and public outreach to attract potential candidates to the industry,” Christopher continued.
Meanwhile, Guilderland Central School District in Albany County transports around 5,400 students and is currently at 61 runs but short 11 drivers, shared Assistant Transportation Supervisor Jerry Keenan during the webinar. He noted that his contractor didn’t renew its service, so the district either needs to find another partner or take on another nine runs.
Kennan said he started in the industry as a driver and uses that experience to be a better leader. Within the past couple of months, he shared, that his director and fleet manager retired, and the district’s trainer left. In addition, Guilderland is short two mechanics.
Keenan said to combat this, his district has changed the hiring process, starting with the new fiscal year that began July 1. He said that only offering free training wasn’t working. Now, the district offers a $500 incentive to new applicants who stay more than 90 working days, and it pays for the CDL training. So far, Kennan said he has four drivers currently going through the training process and is optimistic about the program’s approach.
In addition, the district has job postings all over town, as well as on parked buses. Keenan said Guilderland is offering a driver referral bonus between $125 to $150. However, he said, one of his biggest challenges is applicants failing the drug test.
Over 200 miles west of Guilderland sits Gates Chili Central School District in Monroe County. Director of Transportation Matt Helmbold said his district is working to change the public perspective of a school bus driver. In a partnership with other local districts, staff created both a long and short video that can be aired by local TV stations. Helmbold said the campaign is helping to build up the perception of how great driving a school bus can be.
Helmbold added that no school bus driver leaves their job saying the experience wasn’t rewarding. Gates Chili is also down 11 drivers, and to combat the shortage Helmbold has had to turn down transportation for certain programs.
Christopher agreed, adding that there is a disconnect between school bus drivers’ perceptions of their jobs and the public’s perception of a school bus driver.
Helmbold shared that prior to COVID-19 he didn’t have a driver shortage, which he attributed to a rewarding and understanding culture. He also has modern technology onboard the bus to encourage more applicants. The district is currently running 66 to 70 routes and transports around 4,500 students.
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Meanwhile, Joseph Cervone Jr., transportation supervisor at Sachem Central School District on Long Island, fully grasps the power of positive workplace culture. In his three years as director, he assembled a trustworthy team that takes the burden off him and frees him of daily operations. He is left with more time to interact with drivers and understand their needs and wants. This led to attracting drivers from other nearby school districts, Cervone admitted.
Cervone added that he knows each driver personally and talks to them regularly. He also encourages them and commends their efforts often. He shared that he had three drivers with perfect attendance during a pandemic.
He said he gives his drivers perks. For instance, he provided them with additional monitor training last year. Now that his contractor is short monitors, his drivers can log more hours during the summer and make extra money. He also doesn’t need a referral bonus, he shared, as his brand-new fleet boasts seatbelts and A/C.
Guilderland’s Keenan, meanwhile, noted that workplace culture can’t be changed overnight. He added that because his district lost so many people in upper management he reminds his drivers that they are safe. And due to his experience as a driver, he can look at situations from that perspective.
Christopher reminded webinar attendees that they are not in the yellow bus business. Instead, they are in the people business: The business of taking care of staff and the community they are tasked to support.
“The sooner we understand that the better we will be at retaining and recruiting drivers,” he concluded.