Gov. Mark Dayton proclaims Feb. 22 the state's first-ever School Bus Driver Appreciation Day.
Maintaining a full staff of school bus drivers can be a persistent problem in pupil transportation. “We never seem to have a glut of school bus drivers,” says Tim Lash, transportation specialist and driver trainer at Kent (Wash.) School District.
Beyond simply finding applicants and hiring people to fill vacancies, transportation directors must also make extra efforts to keep drivers on staff, rather than going through the cycle of hiring and turnover that leaves operations critically understaffed.
“We try to pay decently, give enough hours and create a reasonable work environment,” says Steven Lynch, transportation supervisor for Dearborn (Mich.) Public Schools. “Given significant budget limitations and contractual parameters, we struggle with each of these and consequently lose several staff every year.”
With some ingenuity, transportation directors can find creative ways to reach out to potential employees. In addition to advertising on local radio stations, in newspapers and on classified ad Websites, many administrators also develop recruitment methods tailored to their communities.
Vancouver (Wash.) School District has had success recruiting drivers through school newsletters, Transportation Director Joe Precourt says. “We get applicants who already know the schools and are connected to them,” he explains. It costs less than advertising in the newspaper, and he gets more responses.
“Our best recruitment is conducted by our current employees,” says Mike Simpson, director of transportation at Shelby County Schools in Arlington, Tenn. “If they are happy with their jobs and feel appreciated, they will spread the news to friends looking for a job.”
At Calcasieu Parish School System in Lake Charles, La., Director of Transportation Andy Ardoin says he has found success advertising in the local news media as well as church bulletins. Some school districts hang a “Drivers Wanted” banner on the side of a school bus and park it near busy streets in their communities.
Lash says his district needs to hire 10 to 15 drivers for the next school year to compensate for retirements and some growth in the district. In order to fill open positions, he arranged for the transportation department to take part in the district’s job fair this year. Lash attended, and a few of the school’s current bus drivers helped recruit applicants at the transportation department’s booth.
Lash also advertises open driver positions on the back side of the bus passes sent out to every school bus rider. “We ended up getting 15 or 20 responses from that,” he says.
Before the interview
After a successful recruiting effort, transportation directors screen applications for the best candidates.
While some transportation departments will provide CDL training for new hires, others — like Bay City (Texas) Independent School District — won’t interview a potential driver who doesn’t already hold one. “If they show up with the CDL, I know they are truly interested in the job,” Director of Transportation Ron Carroll says. He also requires candidates to pay for fingerprinting to prove their commitment to the position.
Simpson looks at the applicant’s driving record. “If I see a number of citations or accidents on a motor vehicle record, that is a red flag,” he explains. He also looks at applicants’ work history for long-term relationships with previous employers.
Retirees, who may become bus drivers to supplement their income, are often reliable employees, according to several administrators. “What helps us is their well-established work ethic and good attendance patterns,” says Steve Dickie, transportation department supervisor at Livonia (Mich.) Public Schools.
“Usually we hire from our pool of sub drivers that have a proven track record,” says David Long, transportation coordinator for Taylor Community School Corp. in Kokomo, Ind. “Their driving records are readily available at our monthly area transportation meetings.”
Assessment during the interview
Making sure potential bus drivers meet all the necessary criteria is not an easy task. Interviewers must be able to make subtle judgments of character and ability in a brief period of time. While some might stick to the more traditional questions, asking about the applicant’s work history and why he or she wants to be a driver, others want to give the potential employee a taste of what it’s like on the job.
Augusta (Ga.) Public Schools Transportation Supervisor Robert Sutton likes to give examples of incidents that could occur on the bus and ask what the applicant’s response would be. He also tells the applicant the school’s mission statement — student achievement is No. 1 — and asks how the applicant, as a bus driver, would contribute to this mission. “This puts the applicant in a bit of a stressful situation and gives me a chance to observe how he or she reacts,” Sutton explains.
Things are done differently at Bensalem (Pa.) Township School District, where all applicants are brought in for a group interview. Available positions, salary and benefits are explained, Transportation Coordinator Grace Yaeger says, and she looks for cleanliness and prompt arrival for the interview, among other qualities.
Joe Precourt says that his operation looks “first and foremost at people who seem to like kids, people with good common sense. They are most likely to be able to think independently when a problem arises and they can’t get hold of us on the radio.” He also sees value in those who are open to training and won’t take criticism personally.
At Shelby County, Simpson asks candidates if they've worked with children as a scout leader, athletics coach or Sunday school teacher, for example.
For KayAnne Hulsey, director of transportation at Lakeview Academy in Gainesville, Ga., school bus drivers must be capable communicators, as they interact with parents, faculty and staff on a daily basis. “Maintaining a professional and respectful relationship with the students, teachers and parents is also crucial,” Hulsey says.
Lash emphasizes that drivers must be safety-minded and able to handle any situation that could arise on the bus. “We’re looking for people who are assertive yet calm — someone who’s not intimidated by the size of the bus or the large groups of children,” he says.
Dearborn's Lynch contends that even the best applicant screening methods are not the truest test of an employee’s strengths. “The best way is to get them on the job and see how they work out,” he says. “I look for a confident, enthusiastic and well-spoken individual who asks good questions and just plain wants to work.”
Retaining good employees
Most school districts hold appreciation events of some kind for transportation staff. Ron Carroll holds four dinners at the transportation office during the year and treats his staff to a fish fry at the end of the school year. “I do all the cooking,” he says.
At Cherokee County School District in Canton, Ga., Transportation Director Gene Thomason invites drivers with perfect attendance to an annual luncheon, where a drawing is held to determine which driver will be assigned a new bus for the next year. “Each driver attending the luncheon chooses the key he or she thinks will start the new bus,” Thomason says. “The drivers take turns to see whose key is the correct one, generating excitement and anticipation.” He also recognizes exemplary drivers and attendants with monogrammed jackets, which he says have become highly coveted status symbols within the department.
Although difficult for some districts, those that offer competitive salaries as well as health and retirement benefits often have an easier time recruiting and retaining school bus drivers.
Jim Saxon, manager of transportation at Arlington (Texas) Independent School District, says that these topics are routinely discussed at the transportation department’s weekly staff meetings. Currently, the district guarantees drivers six hours a day, while most others in the surrounding area only offer four or five. “And even though they’re at-will, part-time employees, we give them full-time benefits,” Saxon says. His department is also considering stretching drivers’ 180 days of pay over 12 months to provide a steady flow of income throughout the calendar year.
Offering bonuses can be another effective way to reward drivers and retain those employees who are performing well. Arlington's bus drivers receive a $50 bonus for every month without absences or accidents, Saxon says.
At Cherokee County, school bus drivers can attend classes offered through the district’s training department, including instruction in CPR, first aid and student management. By completing classes, Thomason says, drivers can attain “Master Driver” status, earning a certificate and a 25-percent increase in pay.
Lastly, many administrators develop policies that help to create a positive work environment. Drivers for Augusta Public Schools are allowed to bring their children on the bus during routes and activity trips so that they can avoid spending a significant portion of their paycheck on child care, Sutton says.
Carroll says he makes fair and equal treatment of all employees a priority. “I play no favorites,” he says. “My decisions running the transportation department are always based on what’s best for the department, not the person.”
Rather than hiring extra drivers to do sport and activity trips, Transportation Manager Gretchen Biancone-Groff says that at East Brunswick (N.J.) Public Schools, all runs and trips are assigned based on seniority. A seniority system is also in place at Bensalem Township, says Grace Yaeger, who adds that her senior drivers help to create a welcoming and supportive atmosphere for new drivers, who start as substitutes and may not get as many runs early on.
Lash refers to each driver’s route as a franchise. Drivers take ownership of their franchises, ensuring smooth operation and gaining a sense of pride in their work. “When they catch that vision, then they’re more in tune to want to do this job — ‘These are my kids; I’m going to make sure they get to school and make sure they’re safe. I’m going to do my best.’”
"I make it a point to be there for my staff. I am here when they leave for the morning and here when they return at the end of the day."
John Clark, transportation supervisor
Tumwater (Wash.) School District
"I feel that drivers stay because we try to make them feel that they have a stake in the operation. They are full shareholders and our success and reputation is largely theirs."
Steve Dickie, transportation department supervisor
Livonia (Mich.) Public Schools
"I spend a lot of time overall creating a good working atmosphere in our facility. I always thank my drivers for the job they do, almost on a daily basis."
Ron Carroll, director of transportation
Bay City (Texas) Independent School District
"Our best efforts to keep them busy with sub-driving and extra trips usually create a loyalty to our school."
David A. Long, transportation coordinator
Taylor Community School Corp., Kokomo, Ind.
"People tend to respond to responsibility. Don't take the job of school bus driving out of their hands, so that they can be the person on the bus that has the authority to manage the bus, communicate with the children and talk with the parents."
Tim Lash, transportation specialist/driver trainer
Kent (Wash.) School District
"More than anything else, treat all employees with respect, treat them as having value, listen to their input and try to implement their ideas when possible and practical."
Joe Precourt, transportation director
Vancouver (Wash.) School District
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