School bus driver shortage drives new incentives

Only 6 percent of school bus contracting companies nationally had enough drivers this year
By: | Issue: November, 2015
October 19, 2015

Several months into the school year, many districts nationwide still face the worst bus driver shortage in recent years. Some are offering signing bonuses and increased wages to attract more people to the job.

Only 6 percent of school bus contracting companies nationally had enough drivers this year, compared to 15 percent with no shortage in 2014, according to a survey from School Bus Fleet magazine. Nearly 30 percent of respondents said they had a “severe or desperate” shortage of bus drivers this year.

“The school transportation industry has seen more driver shortages than not in the last 20 years,” says Ronna Weber, executive director of the National School Transportation Association. “The industry is heavily regulated, and while that is a good thing and ensures the safety of the children we transport every day, that can also work against the industry in a stronger economy and at times of lower unemployment.”

Strict requirements

The many requirements for becoming a school bus driver can deter people from entering the field, Weber says. The average driver salary as of May 2014 is $14.38 per hour, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Drivers must have a commercial motor vehicle license with school bus and passenger endorsements, which require written tests and training. To qualify for the license, drivers must have a physical exam by a doctor and be approved to drive a commercial motor vehicle. They must also undergo drug and alcohol testing and submit to background checks.

Increased turnover

St. Cloud Area School District 742 in Minnesota was still two drivers short as of early October. Mechanics and office staff have taken the wheel to cover routes.

“We’ve definitely had more of a shortage this year than in the past,” says Transportation Services Supervisor Scott Dahlin. “Normally we see about 5 percent turnover during the summer. This year it was more like 10 to 15 percent turnover, and we haven’t had replacement drivers to fill in.”

A negative public perception of driving busesÑsuch as news videos showing rowdy students on a busÑhas likely contributed to the shortage, Dahlin says. An increase in the minimum wage in other jobs may also have kept potential applicants away, he adds.

The district owns 35 buses, and contracts 65 others. Each of the four contracted companies also faced shortages this year. Some bus contractors, such as American Student Transportation, are offering signing bonuses of up to $1,000 to attract drivers.

St. Cloud offers a bonus of $500. Dahlin hopes to increase bus driver wages during contract negotiations later this school year. Driver recruitment and retention increase when administrators make drivers feel they are valued, Dahlin says. Administrators might do this by attending driver meetings or greeting the drivers as they drop off and pick up students.