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September 01, 2004  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

The Transportation Manager's 2004-05 Survival Guide

The new school year has begun. How will you handle the stress of budget cuts, driver shortages, weather-related problems and student behavior? Transportation managers share their strategies for soldiering on when things fall apart.

by Albert Neal, Assistant Editor

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Critical conditions
Howard Yamaguchi of Yamaguchi Bus Services in Kilauea, Hawaii, struggles daily with weather conditions.

"It's moisture that's a problem here," says Yamaguchi. "It's always raining, so it's always wet." It rains almost every day in Kilauea and the moisture wreaks havoc on Yamaguchi's equipment. "Plywood floors on buses don't work well here," he says. "They dry rot." Lumps or soft spots appear in the floors after six to seven years of exposure to the moist air, so Yamaguchi orders new buses with steel floors only. Mirrors give him trouble too. "You'd be surprised at how much time the maintenance guys spend cleaning, painting and repainting mirrors."

Joel Helfrick, maintenance manager at Laidlaw Transit Services in Fairbanks, Alaska, has been there and done that with extreme temperatures. On rare occasions he's seen temperatures drop to 55 and 60 degrees below zero. And unlike the Bemidji School District, the schools Laidlaw services in Alaska rarely shut down because of the cold. The temperatures sometimes warm just enough for rain, but the rain freezes the minute it hits the ground and turns into ice.

"I've had a half dozen buses stuck out on the road because of snow conditions or ice," says Helfrick. "The buses just slide off the road or into ditches." Sometimes there are five or six buses stuck at one time. Standby buses are sent to pick up the stranded students and a mechanic is sent to assess the situation. Once there, a decision has to be made: can the service guys remedy the situation themselves or will they have to involve a local towing company?

The anxiety increases exponentially for Helfrick because now he might have all 10 of his mechanics out at once, which means downtime for the shop. "You're also trying to make sure all the kids get to school on time and that you fulfill your contract obligations," he says. The emergencies can take from one to four hours to resolve and may happen once or twice a year. "It's all short lived but very stressful while it's happening."

Driver shortage blues
Sherilyn Thacker-Smith, director of transportation services for Palmdale (Calif.) School District, directs pupil transportation services for the sixth-largest school district in California. School has not officially started, but her driver-shortage headaches have.

Schools put in requests for activity trips. If the trips are between regular school routes, then things are fine, but if they're not, a substitute driver is needed to drive the route. This means using a regular driver for the activity trip. "That causes a shortage of drivers sometimes," says Thacker-Smith, "and there can be a lot of activity trips." The trips are for student activities like football scrimmages and cheerleading day camps, which take place during the summer before school commences.

"Driver shortage is a constant battle," says Hugh Mills, director of transportation at Suwannee School District in Live Oak, Fla. Mills, who's been in transportation for 20 years, directs a mostly rural operation and transports 4,000 students annually with a fleet of 56 buses.

"We have a driver-trainer employed here, and she may have a class with only one trainee." Mills trains substitute drivers all year long but says they, too, are hard to find. "We may train as many as 15 to 16 subs and will retain about five by the year's end." As an incentive for the subs, Mills hires full-timers from his sub list before looking elsewhere.

Driver recruitment is a thorn in the side of Yamaguchi Bus Services, where it's necessary to bait drivers with medical benefits and a guaranteed minimum number of hours. "In Hawaii, it's two hours a day plus medical," says Yamaguchi. Some contractors are forced to offer five or six hours of work each day to attract drivers. The problem, says Yamaguchi, is the charter bus companies that cater to tourists. Drivers can get hours and benefits with the charter bus services. To maximize drivers' paid time, contractors have required drivers to clean their own buses or perform maintenance or janitorial work for the district. Drivers get the hours they require and contractors get services rendered. "Still, we're having a difficult time finding drivers," Yamaguchi says.

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