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Pay, Appreciation, Workplace Culture are Key to School Bus Driver Shortage Solution, Panel Finds

RENO, Nev. – Better pay, recognition and a positive work environment were among the priorities identified by a panel of transportation professionals as keys to recruiting and retaining qualified school bus drivers.

The discussion took place following the opening keynote presentation of the STN EXPO Reno on Monday. Panel members included transportation consultant and moderator Tim Ammon, co-founder of Decision Support Group; Greg Jackson, executive director of transportation and fleet services for Jefferson County Public Schools in Colorado; long time bus contractor executive Liz Sanchez, recently named executive vice president for transportation network company Zum; and Scott Lee, transportation director of the hometown Washoe County School District.

The topic was “Navigating the New Normal” and included the impact of COVID–19 on leadership challenges, maintaining transportation services during the pandemic, identifying skills subsequent transportation leaders should possess, small district operations and lessons learned from the pandemic.

When asked by Ammon what could be done to manage the day-to-day demands of the driver shortage without exposing drivers to burnout and driving people away from the job and the industry, the common thread that weaved together panelists’ responses was demonstrating the importance of employees. They agreed that elevating the status of employees through better pay, recognition and a positive work environment would increase driver retention and make recruitment of drivers easier.

During a post-discussion, question-and-answer session, panel members agreed with their audience that even though school bus drivers transport children in buses that can cost $150,000 and live in cities where median home prices are $600,000, their hourly wage is less than municipal park attendants and trash collectors.

The consensus among the panel was that leaders must be more creative about their advocacy for bus drivers and reframe their activities and approach. The question was raised whether school bus driver was an adequate job title.

“This is really the most challenging part of what we do,” Sanchez said. “We have to put our people first and treat them the way we would want to be treated,” Sanchez said. “We have to be mindful of what folks are doing and show you appreciate them. You should also be honest. People appreciate it when you’re upfront and honest about what’s going on. Good planning is important so plan for these things.”

Lee added that a balance must be found in knowing when to push employees a little further and when to back off. “Honesty with employees is huge and we need to be completely authentic with them,” he said. “Previously I felt a lot of transportation directors would deflect attention away from their department, now they are doing the opposite and saying, hey, pay attention to us these are the options now what do you want to do. It is a difficult conversation to have initially, but it’s essential that we have these conversations with our people and with our parents and our stakeholders.”

Jackson, who was named School Transportation News Transportation Director of the Year for 2019, said it is important to include employees as stakeholders. “Your stakeholders are your employees that you serve,” he said. “I think a lot of times the superintendent and the superintendent’s cabinet identify the stakeholders as the community, but stakeholders are the folks we serve as leaders. I serve employees.”

Prompted by Ammon to speak about how transportation directors can keep themselves mentally fit to lead, panelists responded by saying that while keeping employees motivated is important, they should not be so employee-centric that their own needs are neglected.

Jackson said leaders must learn to leave their stress at work and not take it home. Sanchez added that you cannot be a good advocate if you don’t take care of yourself.

Panelists agreed that future leaders must be versatile and open. Lee suggested that future transportation leaders be flexible and be prepared for and understand the characteristics of constant change.

Jackson added that future transportation leaders must also be transparent. “The second thing is being very transparent and realizing this is a partnership,” Jackson said. “They must also educate those people who do not know your business and do not understand what you’re truly about.”

Sanchez said they should promote the use of technology so their operations can be more efficient and be resilient. “If we’ve learned anything during the past couple of years, is you have to be resilient,” she said.

She continued by noting future leaders should be people-focused. “This business has always been about people and so we should focus on our people,” she pointed out. “We’ve always paid attention to hiring, we should change that and focus on retention.”

Related: STN EXPO Keynote Gives Tangible Skills to Recruit, Develop, Engage Talent
Related: McDonald Receives 2021 Grandolfo Memorial Award at STN EXPO Reno
Related: Transportation Directors Trained on Leadership in Uncertain Times
Related: Welcome to STN EXPO Reno

Lee agreed that when things seem to be getting better, they may first get worse. “You’ve got to keep on going,” he said. “You’ve got to understand the mission and consider suggestions from others no matter what they sound like, and you must do this as a team. You’ve got to walk the talk.”

Small transportation operations should take the lessons learned from COVID-19 and concentrate on strict planning for when things go wrong and also be transparent with the public and employees. Succession planning is another area they should concentrate on. Also, collaboration with employees and other districts was also encouraged.

“You do not have to do everything alone,” Lee said.

Lee identified kindness as one of the most important lessons learned during the past two years. “We are aware at school board meetings of the venom that has gone back and forth,” he said. “There is this large amount of divisiveness in our society right now and so much anger.”

Lee added that a recent display of unity at the funeral service for a driver where school buses were in the procession, and mourners wore yellow was the type of expression that keeps him going.

Jackson said understanding everyone’s needs is important and realizing that your employees are training you. “You are a servant to them,” he explained.

Sanchez concluded that realities can change overnight. For instance, who would have thought that we would convert to virtual? “Technology advancement over the past two years has been more than ever,” she said. “We have to be prepared.”

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