School districts around the nation are struggling to find people who are willing and qualified to drive school buses. A simple Google search of “school bus” presents pages and pages of local articles reporting on school districts and companies that are short drivers.
While the driver shortage is nothing new to the industry, the severity of it is being felt like never before.
Transportation leaders are encouraging older people who may have retired from their careers and want to give back to their community to apply for open positions. They are also asking people who may want a job they can work in the mornings and afternoons. Another plus is getting summers off. In some instances, school districts are even paying for the training and testing necessary to obtain a commercial driver’s license.
Administrators at Denver Public Schools are facing many of the same problems that school districts and contractors around the nation are struggling with, no one can find enough people to drive school buses.
“We have a full campaign on to find drivers and we have hired recruiters to find potential drivers,” said Albert Samora, executive director of transportation services for Denver.
Recruiters have been approaching people via cellphone text messages, traditional advertising, social media, job sites like Indeed, and web banners. School buses have been placed in various locations and people are encouraged to board the buses and apply.
“It is a difficult challenge for us, and we need to get more drivers before school starts,” Samora added.
In Denver, there are about 100 drivers who are essentially considered full-time and are members of a union, guaranteeing them at least 32 hours of work each week. Samora said they can get more hours driving students on field trips or to and from sporting events. The more seniority a driver has, the more opportunities there are available to work. But there are fewer guarantees for all the other drivers who are considered part-time and not guaranteed as many hours.
Starting pay for a Denver bus driver is $19.89 an hour and pay increases are small. Some restaurants — even fast food — are paying around the same amount. Some truck driving and delivery opportunities pay more per hour and offer more hours.
Then there are the qualifications. School bus drivers must pass a complete background check and complete specialized training on transporting students. Plus, due to changes in Colorado marijuana laws, some applicants have THC in their system, which disqualifies them from driving a school bus, Samora explained. He added that applicants must also complete a pre-employment physical, 120 hours of training and they must go through a comprehensive licensure process which includes state and federal requirements.
“It is harder to hire retired people because some can’t pass the physical,” said Samora. “We will continue to work hard to find drivers.”
In the meantime, DPS is continuing with its program to allow persons to drive smaller vehicles, less than 14 passengers, Type A school buses, to transport students while they go through the training process to obtain their CDL. The National School Transportation Association fought back against an amendment in the Surface Transportation Reauthorization bill that attempted to require CDLs of nine- to 14-passenger buses.
Job fairs are another way that many school districts are reaching out to prospective drivers. Also, drivers who have had positive experiences in their jobs are encouraged to tell their friends and encourage them to consider driving school buses.
“We have job fairs scheduled and we also use social media to reach people who might be interested in driving a school bus. But we are competing with Amazon, and they pay more an hour than we do,” said Arby Creach, director of transportation services for Osceola District Schools in Kissimmee, Florida. “We offer good benefits, but the pay is lower. We offer a break during the day.”
The flexible hours are positive for some people and negative for others. Drivers generally work early in the morning, but they are off in the middle of the day. For a college student or someone who has a small business, this can be a big advantage. But for someone who needs and wants to be working during the late morning and early afternoon hours, it can be a problem.
Like every job in the world, driving a school bus has its challenges. One problem that Creach said he has encountered is that some drivers don’t feel comfortable dealing with rowdy, misbehaving students.
Meanwhile, in Florida, school bus driver candidates face state licensing requirements and there are rules and policies for each district, Creach explained. In Osceola County, drivers must complete 40 hours of classroom training and 40 hours of on the bus training. Of the 40 hours on the bus, at least ten of those must be with students. Applicants must also be tested by a certified third-party tester.
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Once a person meets all state requirements they can go to a federal office, show proof of meeting all State of Florida requirements to drive a school bus and then receive a CDL. Osceola pays for the training of school bus drivers and for the testing. Commercial driver training is available at nearby vocational schools for between $3,000 to $5,000. Prospective divers must also undergo a complete physical and background check. Candidates are checked on their overall health, vision, blood pressure and possible disabilities.
One problem that Creach said he has encountered is that people who complete all the background checks, physicals and training are not rewarded with a lucrative dream job. They are paid for about six hours of work during the day but must drive early in the morning and during the midafternoon. This means most drivers must commit about 14 hours a day to being a bus driver, even though they are not working or on the clock during a large portion of that time. Other delivery companies don’t have as many requirements, and they can pay more and offer more hours. And people who deliver packages and boxes don’t have the challenge of difficult students.
Prospective school bus drivers for Denver Public Schools must complete an extensive training program to earn the license necessary to drive a regular school bus. This includes 100 hours of classroom instruction and on the bus. The applicants receive training from State of Colorado trainers, and they are compensated while receiving it, Samora said.
He added that once applicants complete this training and receive a state license, they can take it to a federal licensure office and receive their CDL. Bus driver candidates must also pass a physical and background check.