As president of the largest school bus contractor in the U.S. and Canada, First Student’s Linda Burtwistle has a keen perspective on the range of issues impacting the pupil transportation industry. She recently shared her insights with SBF Executive Editor Thomas McMahon.
SBF: Tell us what you’re seeing across the country in terms of school bus driver shortage.
LINDA BURTWISTLE: Driving a school bus is a tremendous responsibility and certainly a skilled position. Solid hiring practices and an ongoing employee retention plan have provided First Student with the foundation to weather various changes in our economy. School bus driver shortages tend to vary from one school district to another based on the health of the local economy and the make-up of the workforce.
What are some of the key issues facing the school transportation industry in general right now?
School districts around the country face tremendous funding pressures, and there is little sign that the pressure nationwide will ease. As the largest provider of school transportation in North America, we have the opportunity to work with our partners to identify savings so they have more resources to bring into the classroom. School districts have to do more with less, which challenges us to help find solutions that will enable them to operate even more efficiently.
In addition, we as an industry are constantly focused on safety. As a company, First Student tracks its safety progress daily, weekly and monthly. This school year, we have achieved our best safety performance ever, and through our efforts have prevented many collisions and injuries from occurring. By operating safely, First Student makes a real difference in the lives of our employees, the students we transport and the communities we serve. Despite this progress, we cannot rest. First Student is continuously seeking to improve and expand our safety efforts and focus.
Do you expect to see more school districts contracting out their transportation in 2012?
School districts are increasingly required to assess their operations to determine how best to balance budgets. Districts that were hesitant to partner with a provider like First Student are now looking at partnerships as a way to bring more resources back into the classroom without sacrificing safety. Our economies of scale provide access to new parts, fuel, buses, etc. at rates an individual district is unable to realize. In many cases, a school district can upgrade or replace an aging fleet with new buses without making the capital investment.
What is the biggest advantage of running so many school bus operations across the nation, and what is the biggest challenge?
The benefits a school district realizes from partnering with First Student are as unique as each community. One consistent advantage is the cost saving the company can provide without sacrificing safety. In addition, we are fully focused on selecting the best of the best to work for First Student. Our employee background checks are unmatched by any other school transportation company. Each prospective driver undergoes a thorough background check, which includes driving, employment and criminal histories. Each applicant is also required to pass a drug and alcohol screening. Before transporting any students, First Student drivers receive extensive classroom and behind-the-wheel training with a continual focus on operating safely. Ongoing training is provided throughout the year to ensure skills remain high.
We are always challenging ourselves to find ways to support our customers better and have launched a new, company- wide transformation program known as M1 [Mission 1] to ensure our team is focused on best serving our customers each and every day. By working directly with our experts within the business, we are identifying best practices, and gaining a better understanding of what location managers need to effectively do their jobs, as well as how we can best serve our customers.
Does First Student have any new training programs or safety initiatives?
Our internal First to Zero safety program, which strives for zero safety incidents across the country, allows us to focus on best practices. Our buses also include a number of safety features, including technology such as Child Check-Mate and GPS.
In addition, we have seen an increase in the number of special-needs students riding traditional school buses. First Student is committed to making riding the bus a positive experience for all, so we have developed several new training initiatives for our drivers and monitors, which focus on behavior issues along with bullying. Every student who steps foot on our bus is precious cargo, and we are committed to do everything in our power to ensure his or her safety.