Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Many years ago, a young man submitted an application for the position of substitute school bus driver at his local school district and never heard a word. Frustrated by months of silence, he went to a neighboring school district, was hired almost immediately and began a truly rewarding career in school transportation. We will never truly know why the first district did not hire that young man. It could have been his youthful appearance or unclear career path, or it simply could have been a case of the legendary small-town "blackball."
I have firsthand knowledge of this scenario because the young man in the story was me. Obviously, the first district had no idea they didn’t hire a future transportation director, but I have seen similar situations play out in other communities. There are quality employees out there who, with proper training and guidance, can provide good service but for superficial reasons never even get an interview. Another scenario I have seen play out has to do with people who have recently left full-time positions elsewhere. Often they never get interviewed because it is perceived that they will leave as soon as they get an offer for full-time employment. In some cases, this is true. However, if you look at your staff as a whole, you probably have two or three people who came for the short term and stayed for the long term. This business is fun, flexible and contagious. Many times, it will rope you in when you least expect it. Don’t rule out quality candidates.
Despite a driver shortage in some areas, many carriers have been able to maintain a steady stream of applications. Still, there are countless communities that have exhausted newspaper ads and word of mouth, putting them in desperate need of a recruiting boost. The following tips have been tried and tested and can directly translate into an increase in driver and monitor applicants. In today’s climate, it’s important not to rule out any recruiting techniques. The bottom line is to have fun and be creative.
The school bus billboard
Many organizations have had huge success with the bus billboard. A school bus is always an eye-catching piece of equipment — wherever it is parked. For about $400, you can have a couple of three-by-five-foot or four-by- eight-foot vinyl signs made with a recruitment message on them. These signs can be displayed on the bus. The bus should be parked in high-traffic zones near your coverage area to spread the message.
In my experience, telephone inquiries have begun only a few hours after the bus is first displayed. Over a three-week display period, I have received an average of 18 applications taken. Out of those 18 applicants, finding six quality employees is not that much of a stretch.
Create a speakers bank
Civic organizations like Rotary, Lions, Kiwanis, Zonta, Masonic, Knights of Columbus, garden clubs and others are always looking for guest speakers for their monthly meetings. Your office should create a 15-minute informational Microsoft PowerPoint presentation about pupil transportation in your community and state. At the end of the program, you can tie in a recruitment drive and hand out applications. I have found that these organizations have many civic-minded or self-employed people such as insurance and real estate agents who can make excellent part-time school bus drivers.
There is nothing wrong with directly contacting or sending letters to organizations or individuals that may be rich targets for school bus driver candidates. A recruitment letter, poster and application package can be sent to volunteer fire fighters or rescue squads to be read off at their monthly meetings or for display on their bulletin boards. You should never rule out your local senior citizens center either. Because of early-retirement incentives, a great number of quality individuals in the 55- to 60-year-old range may be interested. Also contact your local part-time building inspector, police officers, constables or animal control officers. These positions often have flexible schedules that would allow employees to have dual employment.
Build rapport with the PTA
Transportation organizations should make every effort to develop positive relations with the parent teacher associations (PTAs) in their communities. These can be an excellent resource for parents who have been at home for a number of years while the kids have been growing up. Once their children are all in school, many parents desire to return to work with a flexible schedule. For this reason, you should recruit drivers from the PTA regularly. Drivers who are PTA members often have very positive attitudes toward children and can be a vocal advocate for your department.
Supermarket job fair
Many people who have never thought about being a school bus driver are actually great candidates. Some ruled it out as an option because they felt the bus was too big to handle. In other cases, oppressive spouses have told their significant others that they are not capable of doing the job. Regardless, those who have backed away from the prospect of school bus driving can be found. The supermarket job fair is an excellent way to introduce people to the world of school transportation and show them that everyday people can do the job.
All you need to do is get permission from a local mall or plaza to park a bus for a few hours. Set up a table with a few drivers to distribute applications. This can be a rewarding experience. A job fair gives people a chance to sit in the seat and get a feel for the bus while asking questions in a non-threatening atmosphere. Many communities also sponsor trade fairs that allow local businesses to display their products and services. The $300 or so for a booth can go a long way toward raising your public image and recruiting drivers.
Also consider having your transportation department participate in career days held at nearby high schools. At these events, you can get young people thinking about pupil transportation as a viable and respected business. And you can always use these opportunities to spread a positive safety message.
Dual-employment policies seem to differ from school district to school district. There may be night-and-day differences between neighboring districts. Many organizations maximize use of their employees by allowing school bus drivers to work as teacher aides, hall monitors or cafeteria workers between runs. This practice is very positive for several reasons, including having employees with a consistent knowledge of school policies and students. Knowledge of discipline practices can also cross over from department to department and be very beneficial.
Allowing dual employment helps your driver staff earn extra dollars so they won’t get restless. Over a number of years, you should notice a drop in recruitment and training costs for many of your part-time positions. Research regulations and look for collective bargaining agreements to find ways to make this happen.
Contrary to popular belief, residence requirements for some school and government employees have nothing to do with local tax dollars paying employee salaries. Actually, in many areas of the country the bulk of transportation salaries is paid with some type of state aid, rendering this argument moot in some cases. Before improvements in communication technology such as cell phones, pagers and e-mail, public service organizations needed to have critical employees nearby in case of civil disturbances or natural disasters, leading to the establishment of residency requirements.
Today, even school districts that have eliminated residency requirements still get the majority of their employees from their area. However, they have been able to attract quality candidates who are just as dedicated as resident employees from other communities as well. In any case, during a true emergency, you do not want all of your staff reporting immediately. Employees who live 15 or 20 minutes away will arrive in time to be relief personnel or handle clean-up matters. On another positive note, non-resident employees often keep their noses out of local political issues, which may relieve some headaches in your office.
Help them through slow times
You can work with local businesses such as delivery services, tour bus operators and limousine companies to help your drivers get extra work during summer break or extended recess times. These employers often have flexible hours that are great for school bus drivers who need to earn supplemental dollars while working their way up the seniority line.
Also, be sure to spend a few bucks and get bright yellow bumper stickers or buttons with black letters on them that read "I Love My Job, Ask Me Why!" Ask your staff to display them on their cars or jackets. Getting your own employees to speak highly about the job of a bus driver is the best recruitment practice available.
Michael P. Dallessandro is transportation supervisor for Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central Schools.
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