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March 01, 2007  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

2007 Contractor Showcase

What's the greatest challenge these days for school bus contractors? Terminal managers for some of the industry's largest contractors provide answers to this thorny question.


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As part of the Love the Bus campaign, (from left) Brian Shuldberg, Gus Rodriguez and Robert Hatchett of Durham and Allan Haggai of Thomas Built Buses hosted an employee appreciation event at Durham’s McKinney, Texas, branch.

As part of the Love the Bus campaign, (from left) Brian Shuldberg, Gus Rodriguez and Robert Hatchett of Durham and Allan Haggai of Thomas Built Buses hosted an employee appreciation event at Durham’s McKinney, Texas, branch.

Durham School Services, Downers Grove, Ill.

What is your greatest challenge?
Durham School Services takes great measures to ensure the best candidates are hired to transport students to school on time, safely and securely. To that end, one of our greatest challenges is employee recruitment. Our drivers, monitors and operational staff are the greatest asset we have; we are committed to treating employees fairly and showing them appreciation for the exceptional job they do. On Feb. 7 in McKinney, Texas, we hosted an employee appreciation event in conjunction with the American School Bus Council’s Love the Bus campaign. Durham’s McKinney Manager Gus Rodriguez, Vice President Brian Shuldberg and Senior Vice President Robert Hatchett were joined by Thomas Built Buses’ Allan Haggai to treat employees to lunch.
— Bob Ramsdell, Senior Vice President, Human Resources and Safety

Fast Facts
Total school buses: 10,000+
States operating in: 25
Canadian provinces operating in: N/A
Students transported: 800,000
School district contracts: 300+
Company head: John Elliott
Website: www.durhamschoolservices.com
Phone: (630) 435-8000


Atlantic Express Transportation Group, Staten Island, N.Y.

What is your greatest challenge?
We expect a good year with our company performing well in all operations nationwide. The challenges for Atlantic Express echo what my senior managers state. First, recruitment, training and retention of drivers, first-class mechanics and middle-management staff are becoming significantly more costly as quality candidates get more scarce. Atlantic and competing companies have been paying thousands of dollars as bounties for drivers, which we are realizing, in a broader perspective, are just Band-Aids to an acute industry-wide problem. Instead, we all need to focus on ways to attract and train new employees to service our industry as a whole without resorting to unrealistic signing bonuses. Second, we need to make school districts understand the real costs of providing transportation services and the financial risks we take daily, along with significant and ever-increasing capital requirements for equipment replacement. Third, we are too often confronted with contracts that are locked-in with Consumer Price Index increases that are not in sync with rising costs. Finally, while fuel prices have been recently stable, mitigating the risks of future price increases continues to be a concern. Although we have seen recent pricing power in the industry, cost increases of fuel, insurance and personnel recruitment along with wage pressure have just about trumped the price gains.
— Domenic Gatto, CEO/President

Our school districts in New Jersey love our new fleet, service and maintenance program. While driver retention has been a constant challenge, we have been able to provide uninterrupted service by recruiting and training new drivers into the system. Other challenges for us include the uncertainty of fuel prices, the increase in the number of school districts that cut statutory vehicle vintage caps, and the awarding of contracts to low bidders who fail to include true costs in their bids.
— Patrick Cerniglia, Central & Northern New Jersey Regional Manager

Operations in my region have been fairly smooth. Absenteeism and the peaks and valleys of our driver pool are challenges that we address. We plan in advance to train new recruits, because the CDL is a lengthy certification process. The increased driver turnover also creates a challenge to accident occurrence ratio. Therefore, there is a daily constant effort on defensive driving and safety issues.
— Jeff Rollo, Pennsylvania and Southern New Jersey Regional Manager

In Massachusetts, we have been able to fully staff our operations with more than enough drivers and mechanics. A challenge for us is flat pricing, because prevailing wage rates and operating cost factors are not easily predicted when renewing or bidding contracts. While fuel has been down lately, it has been a challenge to budget, as only a few contracts have escalation clauses.
— John McCarthy, Massachusetts Regional Manager

The greatest challenge for our operation at the present time is recruiting, hiring, training and retaining enough qualified and safe drivers. Our local economy is very strong, and unemployment is very low, so it takes a great deal of effort to maintain a sufficient number of quality drivers. We recently decided to terminate signing bonuses and put that money toward advertising and recruiting of new drivers.
— Jim Lasky, West Coast and Mid-West Operations Regional Manager

Fast Facts
Total school buses: 6,239
States operating in: 7
Canadian provinces operating in: N/A
Students transported: 275,000
School district contracts: 210
Company head: Domenic Gatto
Website: www.atlanticexpress.com
Phone: (718) 442-7000

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First Student Inc., Cincinnati

What is your greatest challenge?

The greatest challenge as a First Student manager is driver recruitment, retention and commitment. It has become necessary to turn up the heat on our recruitment programs due to increased driver turnover and the ever-present high absentee rate. First Student offers an excellent starting wage in addition to a competitive benefits package to all part-time drivers. And fortunately, I have an excellent staff that finds a way to transport over 9,700 students to and from school each day no matter how many drivers we may be short.
— Bill Roche, Contract Manager, Providence, R.I.

The safety of the students we transport is always a priority, so our greatest challenge is to remain current with ever-changing social, economic and environmental concerns — including heightened security awareness — to ensure that we continue to provide a safe ride for the children.
— Stacy Bobzean, Contract Manager, New Haven, Conn.

Retaining professional-quality drivers continues to plague the school bus industry in certain markets. However, because First Student utilizes the latest technology, we are able to ensure that our drivers are efficiently and effectively performing their jobs. We are seeing a higher stabilization of the workforce along with improved operational efficiency.
— Charlie Bruce, VP, Sales & Marketing

Our greatest challenge now and in general is manpower. Typically, we have sufficient driver numbers from mid-October through early- to mid-April. However, at the start and end of the school year, we scramble just to cover our routes. We feel that this is due to the seasonality of Alaska’s primary job sectors — fishing, construction and tourism — and that we do not have a large retirement community that spends the winter in Alaska. Many people like the long, mild days of summer; few like the long, dark, cold winter.
— Michael Jourdan, Contract Manager, Anchorage, Alaska

For First Student, employment is the biggest challenge. School bus drivers are hard to find because of the patience, care and responsibility needed to safely transport children to and from school every day. As a manager, I am very proud of my exceptional team, which works hard to make the students, parents, schools and customers happy every day.
— Tammy McDaniel, Contract Manager, Rock Falls, Ill.

Fast Facts
Total school buses: 23,000
States operating in: 36
Canadian provinces operating in: 6
Students transported: 1.8 million
School district contracts: 589
Company head: Carey Paster
Website: www.firststudentinc.com
Phone: (800) 844-5588


Laidlaw Education Services, Naperville, Ill.

What is your greatest challenge?

Driver retention. Recently, we formed a committee to work on this issue. We met several times and in the end, we put together a binder and a CD with information that managers can use as tools to help them in our goal of retaining good employees. We also provided additional training for our dispatchers. Driver retention is a work in progress and will continue to be a challenge, but with the tools we have developed, along with our company support, success is inevitable.
— Marge Tymula, Branch Manager, Danbury, Conn.

We are still dealing with the challenge of a tightening labor pool as the economy continues to improve and unemployment levels continue to decrease. In each market, especially those with significant driver shortages, we are focusing on recruitment, driver training and the benefits of working for an organization like Laidlaw.
— Patrick Vaughan, Senior Vice President, Eastern Business Group

As a branch manager, one of the greatest challenges I face in my region is driver shortages. Having the same driver on the same route each day provides consistency for the customer, schools, parents and students. There have been improvements as the company focuses more resources on recruiting and driver retention programs.
— Lisa Serra, Branch Manager, Corona, Calif.

This year, it’s student discipline. It seems like it goes in cycles, because it hasn’t been bad in the last four or five years. But this year, we’re having a lot of issues. It seems like I’m dealing with something every other day. We work with the schools and try to come up with a plan for the child. And we take a deep breath and try to stay calm and keep everyone else calm.
— Shirley Blackman, Branch Manager, Dallas, Ore.

Fast Facts
Total school buses: 40,000
States operating in: 37
Canadian provinces operating in: 6
Students transported: 2 million
School district contracts: 1,000
Company head: Douglas Carty
Website: www.laidlawschoolbus.com
Phone: (630) 848-3000


Student Transportation of America, Wall, N.J.

What is your greatest challenge?

The biggest challenge is driver retention. The driver is the nucleus of the entire operation, and even the most ambitious manager can find it difficult to keep drivers’ interest piqued while maintaining ongoing education. Driver incentive is not always monetary, and it is important that drivers receive respect from their employer, district and students. They must be reassured that you will always be their advocate.
— Frank Salce, General Manager, Groton, Conn.

Safety training and customer service have been and always will be the most critical challenge. Drivers are the heart of our operation, and helping drivers keep their focus on safety and service is the greatest challenge. Building their “tool box” and making safety their primary focus is our goal. At STA, we believe safety comes first and last while providing the best service we can.
— Evelyn Galbraith, Operations Manager, San Jose, Calif.

Continuing to recruit and train new drivers to perform the vast duties of a professional school bus driver. All licensed school bus drivers and trainees must see themselves as professionals. School bus drivers are required to have a high level of training and skills, and I view these critical skills as essential to a successful and safe operation.
— Michael Payne, General Manager, Homewood, Ill.

Hiring and training drivers is a given, but the bigger challenge is driver retention. There are increased regulatory qualifications and other important responsibilities, such as changes to the hours of work and the attraction of more competitive compensation packages. Our drivers are the backbone of the business, and they need to be recognized and rewarded as such in order to reverse the trend.
— Dave Fimio, Branch Manager, Sutton West, Ontario

Fast Facts
Total school buses: 4,017
States operating in: 10
Canadian provinces operating in: 1
Students transported: 250,000
School district contracts: 128+
Company head: Denis Gallagher
Website: www.ridesta.com
Phone: (888) 942-2250


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