Feeling the pinch of an epic school bus driver shortage? The evidence takes form in cancelled routes, bus delays, service disruptions and angst among all those depending on rides. Consider what three federal agencies recently concluded in an alarming joint report, entitled, 'Strengthening Skills: Training and Career Pathways Across the Transportation Industry.' More than 330,000 school bus driver openings are forecasted over the next seven years. That’s well above the need for mass transit, taxis and limousines.
Why is this? High expectations with little return. Drivers face increasing obstacles for training and background checks from police and child welfare groups as well as low compensation and low hour split shifts.
“Drivers are required to manage the equivalent of two classrooms in the morning and afternoon, while also trying to keep an eye on all the other drivers and pedestrians. This is a pretty substantial burden for something like $13 to $25 per hour,” said Tim Ammon, owner of School Bus Consultants, LLC.
However, transportation leaders have some winning strategies to fill the driver seats.
Dancing air puppets, strobe lights and big arrow signs point to the Driver Job Fair every Thursday at the Humble Intermediate School District outside of Houston. This is the entry point of an aggressive driver academy that’s keeping the stable full.
“We are the lowest paying district around, but we don’t have a shortage,” said Assistant Transportation Director Mark Swackhamer, who helped launch the program after brutal days when drivers called in sick.
On a bi-weekly basis, transportation supervisors work with a fresh group of driver applicants who are attracted by paid classroom and behind-the-wheel training. Successful candidates earn a route, a raise and a senior staff mentor who gives day-to-day guidance. Now the district-run transportation department has filled all 172 driver positions for its 145 routes.
Meanwhile, the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona enjoys a driver surplus due to super networking. Seven bus drivers are paid to visit community groups weekly and encourage people to apply for positions. They raise awareness everywhere from the local unemployment office to the nearby Davis Monthan Air Base.
“We were surprised how it really pays off. We constantly network, and do a good job of selling the job,” said Paul Larson, transportation director for TUSD.
Since October, the district has had a consistent pipeline of 40 to 55 candidates who work as onboard monitors during the paid training period. The district went from 265 certified bus drivers to 290 to cover 251 routes for 18,000 students eligible to ride.
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The Carmel Clay School District in Indiana approved a $1,500 signing bonus to candidates who successfully drive a route for three months and pass an evaluation. Not far away, the Oswego School District in Illinois performs on-the-spot interviews at local job fairs and offers successful candidates signing bonuses of up to $1,000.
Adams 12 Five Star Schools outside of Denver has fierce hiring competition amid the area’s low unemployment and new state minimum wage of $8.31 per hour. The district-run department augments its driving staff for 158 buses by targeting ideal candidates—seniors, singles and parents who want to be on their children’s schedule.
“They are very conscientious, and they love the kids,” said Mark Hinson, chief human resource officer for Adams 12 Five Star Schools.
Recruiters put help wanted signs on the buses and show up on the candidates’ turf—social media, job fairs, county economic development office and grocery stores. The offer is up to $19 per hour and attractive benefits for part-time work. It offers comprehensive benefits for 20 or more hours a week, well below what the Affordable Healthcare Act mandates.
The Washington County School District in Utah offers a Champion Program to retain existing drivers while recruiting others. Greg Bozarth, assistant principal at Lava Ridge Intermediate School, is a motivator for the driving team. He brings members together for summer luncheons to talk about best practices and recognize drivers with gift cards and appreciation certificates.
On the bus, safety patrols and student council leaders support drivers by thwarting stressful student behavior issues. Seventy-two youth zone leaders are trained to monitor behavior and enforce a seating chart.
“While the salary is low, drivers find value in good support and acknowledgement,” Bozarth said.