Management

Staying Power: Keys to Improving Driver Retention

Gary Luster, Senior Editor
Posted on February 1, 1999

Why do some school bus drivers stay with the job for 20 years, and others last for only a few months? The answer to this deceptively simple question is critical because the continuing driver shortage shows no sign of relenting. We talked with transportation officials across the country to learn how they keep drivers in the fold. As you'll see, there's no single solution. Each operation faces distinct issues that affect retention rates. Here's what we found. . .

A smile is a good start
Show them you care. A driver who feels appreciated is less likely to start thumbing through the employment section of Sunday's classifieds. Even something as simple as a friendly "good morning" and smile from a supervisor can set the tone for a positive day on the job. Small tokens of appreciation can also influence a driver's perception of his worth to the operation. Al Sauvadon, senior vice president of safety and training for Santa Barbara Transportation in Santa Barbara, Calif., says he leaves small notes on his drivers' seats to let them know when they have done an especially good job, whether it's handling a tough route with aplomb or keeping their bus clean. Sauvadon also likes to occasionally ride with drivers as they make their rounds, not as a policing effort, but to show drivers that they are not forgotten. "That's millions of dollars worth of PR that costs very little money," Sauvadon says.

Keep them involved
Another method of improving drivers' job satisfaction is to keep them in the loop. Let them know that they are an integral part of the operation. Robert Travis, transportation director of Washington Local Schools in Toledo, Ohio, says his drivers share in management decisions through participation in rules committees. "One of the biggest complaints I've always heard in 10 years of being a supervisor is that transportation is held in low regard and that people don't care about drivers," Travis says. "We're trying to give these people the recognition they deserve." In addition to driver/management committees, Travis says the district arranges open houses that allow the community to meet drivers and view safety demonstrations.

Money, money, money
Although driver appreciation and involvement are critical retention factors, the almighty dollar cannot be ignored. Based on exit interviews, drivers rank inadequate pay as one of the top three reasons for leaving the job. (The others are a lack of benefits and student misbehavior.) Because school districts are often limited in how much they can pay their bus drivers, other compensation incentives may be offered. Danny Montgomery, transportation director of Montgomery County Schools in Mt. Sterling, Ky., says his district offers generous benefits - such as 10 sick days, three emergency leave days and a personal leave day - to compensate for a pay scale that tops out at a little more than $11 an hour. While money is at the root of dissatisfaction for many drivers, others are content with their pay scales. Claud Doolen, director of transportation at Ramona Unified School District in Ramona, Calif., a semi-rural area near San Diego, says many of his veteran drivers stay because the pay is comparable to what they could make in the city. Doolen says drivers start at $11.28 per hour and top out at $13.77 an hour. The drivers also have a full benefits package that includes medical and dental insurance. Frederick Toth, transportation coordinator at Alhambra School District #68 in Phoenix, says his veteran drivers are satisfied with their wages. "At a certain point they are pretty well ingrained into the system, and they realize that $13 an hour for six or seven hours a day is probably better than $5.50 [an hour] for eight hours," Toth says. Although reasonable pay and benefits can keep drivers in their school buses, there's more to job satisfaction than money. Some drivers leave the job because of career concerns. Dr. Mary Nell Chestnut, a psychologist in Atlanta, says all people, including bus drivers, need to be clear about their choice of job or profession to avoid job burnout, another cause of poor driver retention rates.

"One person can be burned out driving buses and another can be just totally excited, ready to go to work every morning and be quite happy about it," Chestnut says. "A lot of that has to do with whether that person is well-suited for that kind of job. Instead of being a bus driver, maybe the person would rather work in an office." Anna Donner, owner of Transportation Compliance Solutions, a consulting firm in Portland, Ore., says most people who drive school buses do it because they like children. But liking children does not preclude them from burnout. Donner says hiring people and training them in dealing with the realities of the job is key. "Many drivers take a job out of desperation, without realizing that it's part time and low wages and only later discover that the money is not enough," Donner says. John Farr, transportation director of Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District, says that one of the reasons districts are in short supply of drivers is that there isn't enough emphasis on training. Because of the driver shortage, many driver-trainers are out driving routes, leaving little time to train new drivers, Farr says. This, Farr says, accounts for lowered expectations and an influx of drivers who are either unable or unwilling to do the job properly. "If you are constantly in a deficit situation, you have to take whoever walks in the door," Farr says. "Your standards, by definition, have to drop."

Look good, feel good
A driver's self-esteem can affect his job satisfaction. Appearance, for example, can negatively or positively influence a driver's sense of professionalism. One idea that has gained favor in recent years is the implementation of a standard driver uniform. Neal Abramson, assistant director of transportation at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District in Santa Monica, Calif., says he favors uniforms. Currently, Abramson's district has a "dress standard" rather than a uniform. "If you're wearing a uniform, students look at the uniform, look at you and they know you're not one of them and sometimes this makes it a little bit easier to earn their respect," Abramson says.

Just don't give up
The key to improving driver retention rates is to find new ways to reward them. It may be necessary to experiment. "We're going to have to come up with some new ideas," Toth says. "We're coming up with things where people are working multiple jobs on site, trying to make it more attractive for drivers to stay and trying to get people out of other areas within the district to become drivers."

How to Gauge Driver Satisfaction
One of the keys to driver retention is job satisfaction. But how do you gauge the level of satisfaction at your operation? An anonymous survey might provide helpful insights. The following questions can be used in a driver satisfaction survey. Other questions specific to your operation can be added. Respondents should be asked to rate the assertions with a score of 1 to 5 with the following scale: 1: Strongly Agree 2: Agree 3: Indifferent 4: Disagree 5: Strongly Disagree

Survey:
1. Performance expectations and standards have been made clear to me.
2. I feel secure in my job.
3. I believe I am fairly compensated.
4. I have the tools that I need to do my job.
5. I have opportunities for career development.
6. My manager deals with me fairly.
7. I feel I can talk openly with my manager.
8. My manager meets with me regularly to discuss management issues and company policies.
9. My manager listens to my questions/problems.
10. My manager responds to my questions/problems.
11. My manager shows respect for my judgment.
12. I feel I am constantly being watched.
13. My district/company treats its drivers fairly.
14. I have an opportunity to grow professionally at my district/company.

Related Topics: driver recruitment/retention

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