Refining our relationships

Ted Finlayson-Schueler
Posted on October 1, 2007

What keeps certain school bus drivers in their occupation for so long? In light of recent reports of driver shortages across the nation, SCHOOL BUS FLEET Editor Steve Hirano discussed this question in the July 10 entry in his blog, “Along for the Ride” ( “I tend to think that almost all jobs are about relationships, not the actual work,” Hirano wrote. “I guess that some bus drivers simply like to pilot the vehicle, but that’s probably only a small part of the reason they stay on the job. More likely, these long-term drivers enjoy the people they work with and/or the people they transport. So, how do you create an environment where people enjoy each other’s company?” Here, Ted Finlayson-Schueler, president of Syracuse, N.Y.-based Safety Rules!, responds.

I think that “relationships” are indeed about maintaining an adequately staffed driver roster — staffed with the kind of driver we are proud to call a member of our team.

It seems, however, that much of the discussion around driver shortage is about recruiting new drivers and not maintaining those you already have. This is akin to the idea of keeping a leaky bucket full by fixing the holes or continuing to pour in more water.

We are reticent to address the “fixing the holes” option because there is the implicit suggestion that we are currently doing something wrong — we are not providing an attractive workplace, work preparation and work experience.

I believe that certain issues around the job of school bus driving make the job unattractive for some, and employers, whether they be district or contract operations, need to think about what it means morally to offer a job that does not provide their employees with a reasonable standard of living — a job they can afford to keep.

Retaining passengers
For school transportation, relationship issues extend beyond retention of employees to retention of passengers. As an industry, we are investing thousands of dollars to persuade schools, communities and both state and federal agencies to invest in school transportation. The Transportation Research Board Report 269 clarified two things that we already knew: School buses are physically the safest place for schoolchildren, and over half the children in the country do not ride school buses.

Admittedly, some don’t ride because school buses are not available. And some don’t ride because their district does not provide late or early buses and they are involved in activities that require them to seek other transportation.

However, hundreds of thousands of children (a statistic that I just made up, but one that can be verified by the line of parents dropping students off at every school in our country each morning) who could ride the bus every day do not because of relationships.

Why aren’t these children in buses? I can tell you from my personal experience as a parent that many are not on buses because they are bullied and beat up on the buses and because the bus driver, rather than righting the relationships that are out of control, joins in the fun of name-calling and ridicule.

These children aren’t in buses because they are afraid to get on the bus or because a parent has received a surly response from a bus driver or transportation office staff to what they believed was a reasonable request or question. Or it is because, as a motorist, the parent observed a school bus driver performing an unsafe driving act or their children reported an unsafe driving act — speeding, sudden stops, weaving in traffic, running red lights, leaving the stop before students are seated, etc.

These issues are all about relationships. Being the statistically safest vehicle on the road does little to promote the beneficial role that we can play in the education process if we haven’t put just as much work into the relationships that we have with students, parents and motorists as we have with legislators and government officials.

Roots of relationships
Relationships are not formed in glossy brochures, legislative testimony or public service announcements. Relationships are formed by the way we treat our employees, which affects how they treat students, parents and the motoring public.

Our success as an industry is about relationships, not just for driver retention, but to differentiate ourselves from the other bus guys, or even from no-bus guys.

In locations where public transportation is an option, how can we make our service “different than” the other guys? What number of parents have to “opt out” of available school bus transportation before the district decides to opt out of the transportation business or cut back to state-mandated minimums? These are both moral and business issues and decisions.

I don’t mean to suggest that we shouldn’t blow our own horn — that certainly is part of how our society operates today. But just as changes in society require us to engage in global public image campaigns to maintain our place as an industry, societal changes also require us to consider the micro — our personal relationship with every employee, passenger, motorist and taxpayer — at the same time.

The personal and the global have merged. Just as bloggers are changing the way news is reported, individual events and relationships can change the way society perceives even its most revered institutions.

Who would have ever thought that people would choose not to buy huge numbers of General Motors vehicles? The problem was that they were building the vehicles they wanted to build, not the vehicles people wanted to buy. Let’s not do the same.

Related Topics: driver shortage

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