STN EXPO Indy Crowdsources Solutions for an Engaged School Bus Operation

Don Harkey instructs attendees on how to play the
Don Harkey instructs attendees on how to play the "box game" to understand different communication styles.

Indianapolis — The high-level Transportation Director Summit was held during the STN EXPO Indianapolis over this past Friday and Saturday. The hope for the event, as expressed by trainer Matt Griswold, was effective collaboration by “creating a takeaway list from the people who are in this room.”

Friday night opened with a discussion of defining moments that resulted in changes to an organization or its culture, and how technology helped. According to an STN survey, the top three challenges that TD Summit participants said they were facing included: Student behavior, parent communication, and training for drivers and other staff.

Transportation directors and supervisors around the room shared what they were doing to help solve these problems. Some suggested properly integrating district administration and law enforcement to improve student behavior, as well as getting drivers on board with discipline that doesn’t always include removal from the bus. Others agreed that it’s important to be transparent and clear with parents, and to get kids involved—one district’s students even made a rap about bus behavior and safety.

Saturday’s TD Summit seminar was held at the Indianapolis Zoo. The day opened with a dolphin show, in which trainers led the animals through a routine in a clear pavilion immersed underwater.

Don Harkey, CEO, People Centric Consulting Group

Don Harkey, CEO of People Centric Consulting Group, which specializes in helping organizations implement workplace culture improvements, explained how employees are like dolphins. In both cases, there are those who are highly engaged, others who follow the game plan but aren’t as engaged, and a few who simply do what they want. Good managers understand who their employees are and then proactively engage them.

This sometimes requires thinking outside the box, a point that Harkey illustrated by having attendees play the Box Game. The game could only be solved by stepping back and taking a new look at the situation, getting input from different team members, and working collaboratively.

Lunch was held in the outdoor Bicentennial Pavilion. During that time, the transportation directors continued discussing problems they were facing and gained new ideas from their peers. One table discussed the finer points of the driver shortage, more specifically the troubles they were having getting regular drivers to consistently show up and finding substitute drivers.

Each director had a method they used to increase retention. One gives out benefit cards to those who use fewer sick days, which he said is popular with his employees. Another buys back hours allotted for sick days at 1.5 times the normal hourly rate. Another used more of a discouragement tactic by noting absences on a driver’s evaluation. An idea that was roundly received by the rest of the table was moving drivers who miss more than a set number of work days to “emergency status,” which included the loss of their seniority and regular route. The whole table left the lunch area saying they admired what a peer was doing or that they planned to try a tactic they’d learned that day.

Grace Kelly, HR Guardrails Org., RC Kelly Law Associates

Grace Kelly, a human resources and business consultant with law firm RC Kelly Law Associates, opened the afternoon session by tackling personnel issues that transportation directors commonly face. She covered legal topics such as family medical leave, workers compensation, harassment, wage discussions, social media policies, age discrimination, and more. She advised transportation directors to go to their HR representatives for help in dealing with such issues, to make sure everything is handled in the manner required by law and nothing comes back to cause trouble later.

She addressed the issue of marijuana being legalized by states or approved for medical purposes. Even in such cases, she said, it is still considered a substance that can impair driving duties and is not allowed under Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations. Managers must have good faith conversations with employees so they can ask their doctors for other options.

Vicarious liability means that “everything (an employee does) is your fault,” she explained, so supervisors must provide the proper training as well as document it thoroughly. For example, all employees should sign off on the employee manual annually, as well as any time it changes. It also makes for a good touch point during trainings so it stays relevant and transparent.

It is important for managers to stay on top of HR issues, she stressed. Employees have ready access to federal and state rules. They are also talking about them to friends and on the internet.

Matt Griswold (front), Engagement Specialist, People Centric Consulting Group

Matt Griswold, also a consultant from People Centric, led the next session and talked about having difficult conversations. Most of the attendees said it depended on the person and the conversation, but generally considered themselves good at having such conversations and dealing with conflict. Several preferred to work proactively to get out in front of conflict.

A key to effectively having a tough conversation is understanding both your communication style and that of the person you’re talking to, explained Griswold. The four main types are direct go-getters, sympathetic empathizers, detail-oriented outliners, and visionary white boarders. Disconnect and bad feelings come about because people have different styles and aren’t trying to understand where the other is coming from, he said.

This is complicated by the fact that workplace dynamics change over time. One attendee said he left a job because he had been promoted to a supervisor position over people he used to work with, and their previous friendly relationship was complicating the job.

To some extent, it is up to managers to set clear expectations and create intentional touch points so employees feel heard. Follow-through is critical here. In those touch points, it is best to let employees admit the ways they can improve, rather than the boss always critiquing them.

The day closed with an interactive brainstorming discussion, during which attendees shared insights on problems faced by others in the room. Some shared how being direct with supervisors and engaging parents of the community resulted in new buses or technology.

Harkey encouraged engaging school bus drivers by taking it down to the “why” of why they must work with reliability, safety and professionalism. Finding this common ground also helps minimize problems with parents. “If you think about the relationship with your parents, you don’t have to worry as much about policies, rules and laws,” he explained.

While on the subject of driver retention, attendees shared that using teachers and firefighters as drivers has been helpful. On days when they’re not driving, keeping substitutes busy with work around the district, professional development courses, or online classes has also resulted in less turnover.

Culture was also proven to play a large part in retention. While one attendee said he couldn’t offer a pay raise, he does offer smaller perks like allowing drivers to take their buses home. Another district offers ESL classes at lunch, and is “awash with drivers.”

“(Drivers) have voiced reasons why they stay and it’s stuff that doesn’t really have data behind it,” one attendee added of her district. “They feel appreciated.”

“It’s just that culture, there’s just so many little things you can do,” another agreed.