As pandemic restrictions ease up in time for a return to physical classes, private school bus contractors across North America are facing even more challenges to the ongoing driver shortage. They are competing against delivery companies and city bus services.
To somewhat combat the exacerbated challenge of finding drivers, Curt Macysyn, the executive director of the National School Transportation Association, is advising transportation officials to be creative in teams of recruiting while also remaining focused on retaining employees. There may be fewer people who are interested and qualified to drive school buses, so he said stronger efforts must be made to encourage people to drive and to take care of the individuals who do want to drive buses.
“We represent contractors who are in the same boat,” said Macysyn. “It is a multi-faceted problem that will require a lot of attention over the next couple of years. Some folks made a decision to stay home and collect unemployment and people have decided after COVID-19 to seek other [opportunities].”
Obtaining that commercial driver’s license requires that applicants know enough about engine mechanics to be able to make minor repairs or understand a mechanical problem well enough to explain it to garage staff. This might be vital for a long-haul, big-rig truck driver to know while on a trip far away from a mechanic’s shop.
But it is less important for a school bus driver to know, Macysyn said. If a school bus breaks down, it is probably less than 30 minutes away from the nearest depot, and a replacement bus can be quickly sent. Also, CDLs usually require extensive training hours. Some trucking companies will pay for that training with the expectation the driver will work for the company.
“We need to streamline the process to get drivers their CDL and probably have a CDL only for school buses,” he said.
Macysyn noted the industry needs to look for creative ways to work with state and federal agencies and administration in obtaining CDLs for drivers.
“It is a North American problem. We are always recruiting, and we want plenty of drivers available. Now there is a shortage of drivers,” added Edward Flavin, director of communications for National Express, which operates Durham School Services in the U.S.
School bus drivers can work a flexible schedule, which can be especially attractive to college students, people who need a second job and individuals with family responsibilities. It is also an opportunity to work in an industry dedicated to making a positive difference.
“Driving a school bus is a wonderful opportunity to get involved in the community and carry very precious cargo; young people,” added Flavin. “It is a way to become active and I think drivers like this opportunity.”
Flavin knows National Express and its subsidiaries across the U.S. and Canada are competing against other transportation companies and those companies can offer more hours and higher pay. Therefore, he said, one recruiting tool is to make school bus driving fun.
“We allow drivers to bring their children with them for the ride. We try to arrange it so drivers can take their children to school on their buses. We offer health benefits and bonuses. We offer up to seven paid holidays a year,” said Flavin.
Yet, people are looking for different things from a job. Flavin noted that some people want more hours and more money. “We try to work with each person on an individual basis and we know some people want flexibility [while] others want more hours on the job,” he said.
National Express isn’t the only contractor actively looking for more school bus drivers. School Transportation News previously reported that school bus contractor Rohrer Bus, a local school transportation company in Perry County, Pennsylvania, held a school bus test-driving event to highlight the industry’s unsung heroes and entice more applicants. School bus contractor First Student held a similar event at South Sioux City High Schools in Nebraska because it is short 1,300 drivers.
Related: Round Up: School Bus Companies Offer Bonuses, Double Wages in Response to Driver Shortage
Related: Round Up: School Bus Contractors Hold Test Driving Events to Recruit Potential Applicants
Related: Grappling With Driver Shortages Continues Despite Funding Promises
Related: School Bus Driver Shortage at Kentucky District Delays School Start
Related: The Upcoming Technician Shortage
Todd Edwards, director of school bus operations for Miller Transportation in Indianapolis, said his company is also always looking for school bus drivers, even when the unemployment rate is good.
“We are like everyone else, and we are struggling to find good people,” he said. “The applicants are just not out there. We offer paid training, and we give bonuses.”
The pandemic shutdowns made hiring and keeping school bus drivers difficult. Also, because Miller is a private contractor, it cannot offer drivers what a school district can in terms of higher pay and a stronger benefits package. “Last [school] year, we started in September and had to shut down in November. It was a very stressful and challenging time. A lot of drivers went on to other jobs and careers. It is hard to compete with FedEx and Amazon,” said Edwards.
Edwards added that like Macysyn, he has found that some would-be applicants are now willing to stay home and collect unemployment rather than work as a driver.
Therefore, Macysyn noted it’s important to better highlight the benefits of being a school bus driver.
“Driving a bus can be a very rewarding job,” he said. “For some, it can be a way to make some extra money. It is good for retired people who want to continue working but not as many hours. They can work early in the morning and some in the afternoon and have the rest of the day off. They also get their summers off. There are many people who don’t want to fully retire, and this would be a great opportunity for them. This could also be a good job for a parent who wants to spend more time at home with their kids.”
For those who need more money, school districts and contractors may be able to offer more routes and opportunities to drive students to extra activities. Also, some teachers might want the opportunity to drive a bus before and after school.
“Being a school bus driver is more than just transporting children to and from school. The bus drivers are part of the educational landscape, and they are helping children,” Macysyn explained. “We have found that many people are actually good at managing groups of students.”
Meanwhile, Teresa O’Halloran, the chief administration officer for Suffolk Transportation Service Inc. on New York’s Long Island, said her organization is trying to get its existing driver-assisted workforce to obtain to their CDL and drive. This pool of people is easier to recruit from.
“We have our CDL permit classes, where we teach the general public how to pass the CDL permit test and give them a chance to sell the company and school bus driving. We recommend school districts adjust bell times,” said O’Halloran. “We advertise to people who have lost their jobs in other fields due to the pandemic. We work to create a culture of a company that cares about its employees. We can’t be overly hard on people. The pandemic turned everyone’s life upside down. We are hoping more people consider driving our buses.”