You’ve heard about the stepped-up recruiting practices trucking companies use to address the shortage of truck drivers. Well, some of their gains are coming at the expense of another industry — the large school bus industry, involving perhaps a half-million busses and 625,000 bus professionals.
Below, transportation officials and transportation staffing companies discuss the challenge and some solutions.
Florida: Doing “Everything We Possibly Can”
Arby Creach handles driver recruiting and training for Orange County Public Schools in Florida, a state where school busses transport 162,000 kids each day and burn about 14,000 gallons of diesel. Creach says “A lot of folks who drive commercially just aren’t the type who want to be with students. You do have to have a passion. You do have to love kids.”
Many people, he says, still think the jobs are part-time, like in days gone by when working mothers drove busses for “butter and egg money.” It’s now often a full-time job, and Creach’s district is running about 1,000 busses a day. It’s adding new busses daily, though still 40 to 50 drivers short.
Creach’s team is advertising in Spanish newspapers; shopper leaflets that arrive in people’s mailboxes along with coupons and other ads; in person at Home Depot and Wal-Mart; online at ocps.net; and at job fairs. Creach would like to advertise in the print newspaper the Orlando Sentinel, but his boss isn’t as hot on the idea. “Short of going out and leaving flyers on windshields, we try everything we possibly can.”
The selling points of a bus-driving job, according to Creach, include “longevity,” competitive pay, and “all the hours you want to work.” Drivers get student holidays off, but the district can help them find driving jobs at Disney and elsewhere if they want to work during the summer.
“I’d say 99.9% off our people love the work and love the kids,” Creach says. “It gets in the blood.”
100 Signs in Arkansas
Rhonda Harris, who coordinates transportation for the Sheridan School District in Arkansas, says student behavior, low pay, relatively low unemployment in the area, and unusual hours make it difficult to attract drivers.
Sheridan has people work two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon, so it’s difficult to find work that people can do during the remaining hours of the day to supplement the $6,866 annual driver pay.
“You have to work somewhere that allows you the flexibility,” Harris says. “There aren’t many places here in town that will let you do that. You have six hours during the day that you don’t do anything.”
There’s an unwritten rule, however, that people who take driver jobs have a better shot at other school-district jobs. This helps attract drivers who’ll want to work in the cafeteria, as custodians, or as teachers’ aides during the extra hours.
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Sheridan has advertised in the two local papers, and set up a booth (which included an actual school bus) at the county fair. But its most successful effort has been a sign campaign. It cost about $300 to print about 100 signs, starting this past spring season. The campaign generated about 30 calls and 10 hires, nine of which were recently approved at a school-board meeting. “It seems to be working,” Harris says.
Harris is afraid that more and more drivers are going to take the driving skills they pick up and take jobs as truck drivers, something that’s now easier to do under new government rules. To combat this, her team now has driver-candidates pay for their training themselves and get reimbursed by the district if they actually take a school-bus job, rather than the school footing the money up front, which can lead to the school district acting as a training company for the trucking industry.
In New York, “You’re Not Just the School Bus Driver”
Lenny Bernstein is a Rockland County, New York, school transportation official and president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation. He says “Finding qualified people who are willing to do the job is increasingly more difficult. There are other jobs that are paying more that are less stressful than driving a school bus full of children. Some people get training for school-bus certification, and then find they can go and drive a truck and make more money and have nobody talking back to them.”
Although pay can run as low as $7 to $8 an hour, he says school-bus jobs offer good retirement- and health-insurance benefits (he mentions the limping maintenance worker he bumped into July 30 who had an ingrown toenail and couldn’t afford a doctor’s visit).
“Not every [school-bus staffing] company can afford insurance and not every school district can afford it, but the ones that can are a little bit above the curve,” he says.
But Bernstein says something bigger than insurance is also a compelling selling point of a school-bus job. School districts and driver-staffing companies are making drivers feel like they’re proverbial first-responders, telling drivers that “if they see something, say something.” Let’s hope they speak up. The terrorist group Hamas has made children in busses one of their favorite targets, proudly boasting of a 1998-2007 spree of attacks on bus-riding schoolchildren in Israel (where some busses now have armor on them).
Unfortunately, we all now know this sort of thing can happen here.
“Although the government will tell you there are no credible threats to a school bus,” he says, “we in the industry want to do everything we can to prepare, make drivers more aware of their surroundings. You’re not just the school bus driver. You’re saving lives every day.”