A roundtable of transportation experts from the public and private sector discussed the various challenges and solutions concerning driver shortages during last month’s STN EXPO in Reno, Nevada.
The topic, “Driver and Employee Retention: Finding the Carrot and the Stick,” held following the STN EXPO Trade Show on July 11 featured recommendations and observations from Michael Shields, director of transportation for Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon; Mark Swackhamer, assistant director of transportation for Alvin ISD in Texas; and Sonia Mastros, president of Orbit Software, Inc. Denny Coughlin, owner of School Bus Training Company and a nationally recognized student transportation expert, moderated the session.
Coughlin asked why there are school bus driver shortages in the first place. Driver pay is always an issue, and Shields said his district increased salaries, and hired mechanics and also trained them as drivers. But he added that there are additional reasons.
“Some people simply shy away from the testing process, some don’t want the drug testing, and the number of applicants has dropped since the application forms changed from paper to electronics,” commented Shields. He said his district regularly receives applications from people ranging in age from 25 to 70.
Shields shared information on a recruiting panel he helped form to increase Salem-Kaiser’s driver base through local TV advertising, electronic billboards, newspaper ads, and booths at the county fair and at job fairs. High school technology students also created video ads that were shown at local movie theaters.
Mastros suggested promoting the job openings through employment fairs prior to the start of school as well as at street fairs, farmer’s markets and advertising on websites like monster.com and indeed.com. The group also suggested that bus monitors be offered the opportunity to be drivers, and they all agreed on the importance of obtaining support from the district or company Human Resource department.
Shields discussed the interview process, saying it’s important to ask, “Do we really want to hire this person?”
Swackhamer said to be sure the applicant understands what the job entails, and that this means employers should discuss behavior issues that may occur on the bus and explain the training necessary to interact with challenging students.
Some applicants may be eliminated by their personality traits, Shields advised. “Check out the applicant’s job gaps,” he added, “and ask them student management questions. Sometimes people have a fear of handling kids.”
Mastros said that it’s helpful to see if individuals have researched the district on the internet prior to the interview. This may indicate the applicant’s interest in the job.
Shields said districts can offer new applicants a chance to observe current drivers on the job and perhaps even an opportunity to let them drive a bus in a controlled environment. He also said that interview teams can be composed of supervisors and driver trainers. The interview personnel should be professional and properly greet the applicants.
Swackhamer said trainers can discuss the job with applicants by explaining the study that’s involved, then describe expectations as far as the vehicle and safe operation is concerned. He added that pre-screening should involve the online application and the initial interview. Background checks should be performed as well.
He recommended that during training, a seasoned driver should be assigned to mentor a new driver for a week. He also said drivers want the jobs for money, but also for the camaraderie that can be found in the break room.
When discussing carrots to dangle in front of veteran drivers to keep them on board, the panel suggested using seniority in selecting routes and offering drivers a family atmosphere in which to work. Mastros said driver recognition is important and can be achieved by providing free lunches, giving a driver a specific job title after 90 days and awarding gift cards. Other means of recognition can be awarding a driver a preferred parking spot, birthday cards and parties, and barbeques. But ultimately, management should spend time getting to know the drivers.
Shields said it’s important to understand why drivers leave the department for reasons other than retirement. Maybe they change jobs for more money or they choose to change school districts in search of a better fit.
In promoting drivers to trainers, Swackhamer said it’s preferable to promote from within the district rather than looking outside for the higher positions.