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February 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

Mission: Search and Employ

The deepening driver shortage is forcing school bus operators to embrace year-round recruiting, media blitzes and innovative bonus programs.

by Dale MacDiarmid, Senior Editor


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Let me share something with you," says William Bast, transportation administrator for the DeKalb (Ga.) County Schools, describing one of his newest drivers, a retired, 24-year veteran of the police force: "He worked his first day, and started off by himself at 6 a.m. in the dark. He had worked unarmed, undercover, but he said he was never so afraid as when he was alone in the dark with that school bus. It truly is an awesome responsibility." Sure, transporting schoolchildren requires training, dedication and diligence. But the job's "awesome responsibility" is certainly manageable, and not the only reason potential drivers are staying away in droves. And Bast's anecdote illustrates only one of the several reasons that drivers are so difficult to recruit. Go beyond word of mouth
Often, school districts have trouble recruiting drivers simply because the available pool of prospective drivers — the surrounding community, usually — doesn't even realize that there is a shortage. Indeed, for large and small districts across the country, school bus drivers almost always are in short supply. Richard Hansen, transportation director for Districts 47 and 155 in Crystal Lake, Ill., launched his latest recruiting drive with a concentrated effort at raising community awareness. "All the community knew was that the bus would come late and it was packed," he recalled. Most people simply assumed that the transportation department was incompetent. To remedy that, "we did an advertising blitz," Hansen says. Ads were placed in newspapers and on radio stations, banners were displayed on buses parked in front of the schools, and slides, projected between movies on the screens at the local cineplex, alerted the community that there was, in fact, a driver shortage. Hansen says he also asked his drivers to help get out the word that the district's driver shortage was not just a management problem but a problem for the whole community. Although driver shortages have remained constant for several years, school districts are sometimes slow to respond. "A lot of times districts gear up in the spring to cover all the activity trips, and then in late July and August to prepare for the start up of school," says Ruth Newby, a transportation consultant with Overland, Kan.-based TransPar Group Inc. "That's not enough anymore." Newby explains that transportation directors should view driver recruitment as an ongoing process and continually search for new recruits, even when routes are fully staffed and all the buses are running on time. Newby says TransPar advises a step-by-step approach. First look at existing routes to determine if the shortage can be eliminated, or at least alleviated, by combining routes and running fewer buses. Once the routes are streamlined, Newby says, you need to learn your own area: "What's out there? What are you confronted with? Learn who's applying and where they are coming from. It used to be that you just relied on moms — well, you can't do that anymore." Of course, if you've been able to recruit new drivers among local moms, then by all means try to recruit more moms for your fleet. That's the best place to start: among the areas and populations where drivers were successfully recruited in the past. Also look at the area's demographics. If many in the community attend church and like to go bowling, churches and bowling alleys are where you'll want your posters. Nobody wins a wage war
The low pay scale for bus drivers in most school districts is often cited as one of the biggest obstacles to recruiting. Unfortunately, most districts cannot afford to pay their drivers more. Moreover, in regions crisscrossed by several school districts, raising the drivers' wages can set off a bidding war, in which every nearby district is forced to match the higher pay rate in order to remain competitive, canceling out any recruitment advantage. That situation confronts Bill Kohn, administrator of transportation for the Washington Elementary School District, the largest school district in Phoenix. Kohn says that when one district in that metropolitan area raises its pay, the others immediately follow. Any district that doesn't match the prevailing wage likely will find some of its drivers — often the newest recruits, who represent the most recent investment of time and money — jumping to the neighboring districts A better strategy for Kohn was providing his drivers with opportunities to earn extra money. In addition to contracting with church groups and the local YMCA during the summer, Kohn provides all the local transportation for the Fiesta Bowl during the Christmas break, ferrying bands and other groups that come to Phoenix from across the country for the game. Another popular recruiting strategy in some districts involves paying drivers a "finder's fee," which is basically a cash bonus to bring in new drivers who complete their training and stay with the district for a minimum length of time, usually between 30 and 90 days. Although districts still offer such bonuses, some are discovering that fewer of their long-term drivers are brought in under that system. Look, listen locally
That's a somewhat ironic situation because transportation directors believe almost universally that their best drivers, the ones who stick with the job the longest, are local residents recruited through word of mouth. That maxim applies equally to small rural districts, to their large urban counterparts and to private contractors as well. Greg Bonnett, president of Sunrise Transportation in Chicago, eschews "finder's fees" and other financial incentives for new recruits. "I won't put a bounty out there," Bonnett declares. "I'd rather spend the time and money to recruit within the community and try to locate homegrown prospects. We're very determined to recruit from our own area." For smaller districts, too, especially those in rural areas, a local approach usually yields a reliable pool of drivers. Gloria Lowder, transportation director for Harrison School District 2 in rural El Paso County, Colo., recruits most of her drivers with banners posted outside the bus yard or displayed on a school bus parked in front of a local supermarket. When she recruits drivers from farther afield, they tend to grow tired of the long commute, especially during winter months when travel is more difficult. "Snowbirds," she says. "Gone for the winter." Lowder adds that the neighboring districts have a "we're-all-in-this-together" attitude and share information about successful recruiting efforts. Also, by placing a strong emphasis on the bus drivers' service to the local community, Lowder is recruiting drivers who stay longer. "Many were born and raised in this area," she says. "Some have seen kids from kindergarten through [high school] graduation." Motivating factors
Transportation directors know that retaining drivers requires as much effort and consideration as recruiting new ones. Interestingly, Hansen found that vigorously enforcing the rules covering tardiness and absenteeism was welcomed by his mostly dedicated fleet of drivers. "Except for the small handful of chronic abusers," Hansen says, "it was received very positively by the rest of the staff. They knew they had to pick up the slack for those who weren't showing up." Rather than just weeding out a few slackers, Hansen made a concerted effort to reward his drivers for their dedication, instituting a "perfect attendance bonus" program that pays $200 to drivers with perfect attendance and punctuality. Drivers who earned the bonus for the first semester, could earn a $400 bonus for duplicating that performance during the second half of the school year. In Phoenix, Kohn also devised methods for putting more money in his drivers' pockets. Now, when three of his drivers finish their routes, they return to the yard and fuel the fleet's 155 buses, extending their part-time driving jobs into full-time employment, making them eligible for benefits as well. Some of Kohn's drivers extend their hours in food services, which has a schedule that meshes perfectly with the drivers'. TransPar's Newby says attracting drivers by offering benefits — personal, sick or vacation days, for example — may seem like simple solutions, but they can backfire when the drivers actually use them. "Benefits are wonderful until you don't have a driver," she says. "Sometimes they're nice in attracting drivers, but they come back and haunt you later" when you need to pay two drivers, the one who is out and the one covering the route. Besides, most school bus drivers are not motivated by money. Newby says drivers answering a TransPar survey about job concerns ranked money fourth behind job satisfaction, a favorable working environment and coworker acceptance. Many simply enjoy the job and the camaraderie of their passengers and fellow drivers. Retaining those drivers can often be accomplished with small but meaningful steps that acknowledge the job's demands, even something as simple as driver safety awards and preferred parking spaces for perfect attendance. Private contractors like Bonnett use many of the same methods to instill feelings of professionalism among the ranks of their school bus drivers. "You need to continually remind drivers that they are viewed as professionals," he says. "I need to have my drivers know that I will support them as professionals," even if that support extends to writing a recommendation for a valued driver who decides to look for work with one of Bonnett's competitors. "The other 50 people in the yard need to know that I will do that," he says. Although he is still battling the driver shortage, Bonnett says that his strong support for his drivers is paying off with increased retention. During the past two years, he says, totals on the company's seniority lists have traded places, with longtime drivers, once in the minority, now outnumbering recent hires. Of course, the longer a fleet can retain its existing drivers, the less need there will be to recruit new ones.


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