This is an exciting, challenging and threatening time to be in the yellow school bus business.
Over the past two years, the National School Transportation Association (NSTA) has taken a careful look at the industry's big picture, and we are amazed by the results. Most days we get caught up in the day-to-day operations, so it is easy to lose the perspective that helps us make better long-term decisions.
The NSTA has had a constant focus on Washington, D.C., and the national issues. Think of the departments and agencies that affect us: Education, Transportation, Labor, Health and Human Services, EPA, NHTSA, FMCSA and more. And, don't forget Congress, the White House and the courts. As operators, we tend to think about the local jurisdictions and the states first -- that's where most of the immediate action is. But it is vital to remember that actions and decisions that affect the very existence of our companies and our industry are being made daily in Washington.
Major challenges looming
The interior of the bus will likely be changed.
The fuels we use will change.
Technology will affect every part of our buses and our businesses.
Labor shortages may get worse if changes to bus configurations reduce capacity and require us to use more buses to service existing customers.
Federal regulation may make it harder for school districts to keep up with changes, and the opportunities for private contractors will grow.
School choice -- need I say more than those two words -- will affect yellow bus operators dramatically.
Strains on school districts will increase -- not just financial strains, but strains in attracting and retaining quality educational leaders.
Over the next three years, we see the following major challenges to the industry:
Our board of directors remains committed to ensuring that our contractor members, and the entire student transportation industry, are well represented before decisions are made and while policy is being developed. The NSTA has had excellent D.C.-based resources in place to do just that for 20 years, and we will continue our efforts to improve the quality of those resources. We are proud of our record representing the industry on Capitol Hill.
The challenges are clear. The threats lurk just behind them. Misguided efforts based on emotional responses to isolated incidents may throw safety to the wind while special-interest groups push private agendas. We want to ensure that public policy does not become "penny wise and pound foolish."
Finding unifying themes
The NSTA has also been looking at the factors that bring us together as an industry. It's too easy to think about our differences -- big and small, local and national, etc. One common theme among our members has been enterprise. We are an association of businesses. And businesses have shown incredible strength, flexibility and leadership. We innovate. We can call on rich networks of suppliers, customers, colleagues and employees to improve our operations. We are accountable and responsive.
The NSTA is creating a focus to ensure that we are a healthy industry made up of healthy companies. Everyone will benefit.
So how are we going to shape this new leadership role?
We are going to reach out to members and non-members alike to define the issues. We will work with other associations -- the obvious ones and the not-so-obvious ones -- to find solutions to long-standing problems. We are going to capitalize on our strengths.
By reaching out to industry stakeholders, the NSTA will exercise the principle of reciprocity. We will be positioned to support our members to enhance the education of youth through the provision of safe student transport that adds value to their learning experience.
Author Terry Thomas is president of the National School Transportation Association and president of Community Bus Services in Youngstown, Ohio.