The School Bus Driver Shortage: Today’s Realities and What You Can Do
It has been highly publicized that a nationwide school bus driver shortage exists. According to a recent School Transportation News article, 80% of respondents surveyed said their school district or bus company is currently lacking drivers. Eighty percent. Let that sink in for a minute.
But why is there a school bus driver shortage? In order to come up with potential solutions or thought starters on the topic, we need to first understand some factors that may be contributing to this shortage, including:
- Low driver pay, which is intensified by today’s strong job market.
- Lack of benefits for school bus drivers and not enough hours of work due to the nature of the job itself.
- Need for a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), which can require up to 6 months of training (often without pay).
- Need to submit to (and usually pay for) a background/fingerprinting check as a job requirement.
- Lack of support from school management regarding students and/or parents who misbehave.
With such a laundry list of obstacles, it’s no wonder the school bus driver shortage is on the verge of becoming a crisis. If children can’t get to school because there’s no bus to take them, the time they spend learning is greatly reduced—which is a problem for all of us.
But what can school bus operators do to attract and keep drivers in today’s competitive job market?
The harsh reality is that school bus companies must commit to change, as hard as that may be. As the current driving force retires, it’s more important than ever to bring on new drivers for the classic yellow school bus—but younger drivers simply aren’t entering the field. It can no longer be business as usual in 2020 if school bus companies want to compete. Here are five suggestions each to help attract and retain drivers:
ATTRACTING SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS
- Salary is, by far, the biggest hurdle for attracting new drivers for your school buses. When potential (or existing) drivers can find jobs paying more than the typical $16/hour driver salary, they’ll go where the money is. Which means school bus operators simply must increase driver salary. Of course, this is easier said than done when budget-strapped school districts are looking for the cheapest bid, but it’s recommendation #1 for attracting new drivers. Consider it a long-term investment in the success of your company.
- Offer school bus drivers more hours of work and/or benefits. Two hours of driving in the morning and two in the afternoon simply isn’t enough work for many drivers. These odd hours also make it virtually impossible to fill in the gaps with another part-time job. Sure, a school bus driver might get the occasional field trip or team event, but those are usually paid at a lower rate—and drivers need more money, not less. So, consider assigning them administrative tasks or other job duties when they’re not driving to help pad their hours and provide a little extra in their paycheck. On a similar note, consider extending benefits to part-time bus drivers who work more than 14 hours per week. Remember, you’re not only competing with the school bus company down the road, you’re also competing with the coffee shops, supermarkets, and fast food restaurants of the world that can offer the whole compensation package: more hours, easier work, sick leave, and medical benefits.
- Pay as they train. Many school bus companies will only hire drivers who: a) already have their CDL; and b) have driven with it for two years. This leaves out an entire pool of people who don’t have the requisite experience on paper. Consider hiring people who don’t yet have their CDL, then pay them as they train to pass the test. While they train, send them on ridealongs with experienced school bus drivers until they’re ready to drive solo. Show that you’re committed to them as employees of your company.
- Pay for school bus driver start-up costs, like background checks, drug testing, and fingerprinting. Typically, new drivers are expected to pay these costs themselves, which can be a financial burden on top of their already lower-than-average salary. By footing the bill for these pre-requisites, you’ll eliminate one more hurdle for them.
- Look for new pools of school bus driver candidates. Driving a school bus is a demanding job that requires someone with a good driving record, sense of responsibility, and an aptitude for working with children. Hmmm, like former teachers or police officers, perhaps? Work with a local recruiting agency, or hold a job fair, to target retired government employees who have made their living working with the public and reinforcing standards of conduct.
RETAINING SCHOOL BUS DRIVERS
- Reward exemplary school bus drivers with a monetary bonus that will help incentivize them and make them feel appreciated. If a monetary bonus is beyond your budget, consider a store gift card, gas card, even a ham during the holidays—anything that says, “thanks for a drive well done.”
- Offer flexible schedules to drivers of your school buses. As we mentioned earlier, one of the biggest hurdles for drivers is the odd hours that prevent them from finding additional work. Give them the freedom to swap routes with other drivers in your school bus company. For instance, one driver could cover Monday/Wednesday/Friday, and the other could cover Tuesday/Thursday. Maybe another driver works just class trips. This flexibility would give your school bus drivers a better likelihood of finding another part-time job to fill the gaps.
- Put a monitor on all school bus routes. Drivers have many more responsibilities than just driving the school bus. They must ensure their students’ safety, monitor their behavior, and sometimes even maintain the actual bus. Alleviate some of their burden by putting a monitor on all routes to keep an eye on the kids and help maintain a safe environment.
- Provide continuing education. Invest in your school bus drivers to keep their skills sharp and show you’re committed to them as valued employees. Enlist your long-time drivers to conduct on-site training classses, or partner with a local vocational school. Offer stress management or relaxation seminars as part of a wellness program designed to ease the stressors of the job.
- Stand by the drivers in your school bus company. Driver satisfaction doesn’t always involve money, sometimes it’s about showing support—particularly administrative support if children misbehave or parents complain. Drivers want the authority to set rules and standards on their own school buses, then feel supported by management when they do so.
As 2020 kicks into high gear, it’s time to reevaluate how you attract and retain drivers—and to ensure you have comprehensive insurance coverage that supports your school bus fleet. If your budget simply won’t allow for increased driver salaries or bonuses, think of creative ways that address training, recognition, and quality of life. The school bus driver shortage isn’t going away anytime soon, so don’t be hemmed in by the limitations of the same-old-way of conducting business. It’s time to commit to change to attract and keep school bus drivers for the long haul.