I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news is that the driver shortage seems to be easing. The bad news is that the national unemployment rate seems to be climbing. Of course, these circumstances go hand in hand. The school transportation industry has been hammered from a labor standpoint for the past several years because of the booming economy and the tight job market. We all knew, however, that it was only a matter of time before the pendulum swung in the other direction. I’m basing my assertion about the easing of the driver shortage on our annual contractor survey, which uncovered a definite shift in perception. Many more respondents said they have no driver shortage or a mild shortage this year compared to last year. Accordingly, significantly fewer respondents characterized their shortage as moderate, severe or desperate.
Relief is sorely needed
This is heartening news for several reasons. First, school bus operators badly crippled by the driver shortage have been forced to hire candidates who might have been turned away under other circumstances. And they’ve been forced to keep drivers who might have been terminated under other circumstances. No one wants to be in this position. It’s like having a gun held to your head. Second, the driver shortage has compelled many school transportation programs to raid their offices and garages for substitute drivers. According to our contractor survey, more than three-quarters of the respondents said they use office or garage staff more than once a week to cover bus routes. For several reasons, that’s a dangerous practice. Not only are these people pulled away from their assigned duties, but they also are not as familiar with the routes as regular drivers or regular sub drivers. And while they’re out on the runs, they are not doing their own jobs. In many cases, that means that bus repairs are postponed or that the transportation manager is sitting behind the wheel of a bus while a crisis is occurring in the office. Finally, any relief from the driver shortage means that transportation managers can refocus on their primary mission — safe, efficient pupil transportation. Certainly, personnel issues are a part of the big picture and cannot be ignored, but there are many other directives that require constant attention and diligence, such as staff training, maintenance practices, bus procurement, school and community relations and industry networking.
Redouble your efforts
Now, having said that the driver shortage is tapering off, I should add that a majority of transportation programs are still hampered by a lack of help behind the wheel. In fact, 63.9 percent of the respondents characterized their shortage as moderate, severe or desperate. In addition, nearly half of the survey respondents said driver recruitment/retention is one of their greatest challenges. That’s not surprising. Drivers play such a pivotal role in pupil transportation that they will always be near the top of any manager’s priority list. While this year’s contractor survey suggests that the driver shortage is slackening, there’s no reason to believe that a long-term trend has been established. In many ways, the school transportation industry is at the mercy of the economy, which even federal regulators cannot control, despite their best efforts. What this suggests is that school bus operators need to be tenacious about driver recruitment and retention practices, whether or not they’re currently feeling the pinch.