For Jason Johnson, president of the New York Head Mechanics Association and equipment service manager at Horseheads (N.Y.) Central School District, his work for more than a decade on school buses has been driven by the satisfaction he gets from knowing he is helping children get to and from school safely. Having led the association for the last six years, he is also passionate about helping the state’s mechanics access the training they need as technology rapidly evolves.
In this interview with SBF, Johnson talks about helping mechanics troubleshoot problems together, working to mitigate a mechanic shortage statewide, and the team effort involved in running the association.
1. How did you get your start in student transportation?
I started my career at Alfred State College with a degree in Diesel Mechanics and went to work as a diesel mechanic at Ryder Transportation Services after that. Then, one day I was asked if I was interested in a job at a local school district. Since then, I have worked for three school districts, moving up [each time]. I am on my 15th year working on buses. It is still a very satisfying job, knowing I am a part of keeping children safe day in and day out on a school bus. I can proudly say I bleed yellow.
2. As president of the New York Head Mechanics Association, what are your plans for the association and the upcoming annual training seminar in July?
Plans consist of bringing key classes to our seminar that pertain to issues that our great mechanics have to deal with day in, day out. This industry seems to change with technology at a very fast rate. It is very important to me to make sure we are on top of any changes and ready for what the future may bring us.
Our association also holds monthly meetings throughout the state so that all mechanics can meet and talk about issues in the field and problem-solve with each other.
I am grateful to have the backing of my school district to let me reach out to other schools and get them answers to their questions. A group of head mechanics on the board helps me accomplish these tasks. The local chapter presidents of our organization need to be commended. They put local meetings together and do a tremendous job. I’m very proud of all the people who help make our organization as strong as it is.
3. Recent reports indicate that there is a growing technician staffing shortage. Are you seeing the effects of this at your district? If so, how are you dealing with it?
We are experiencing this throughout the state. As retirements hit us in stages, we find it hard to replace [technicians]. Districts have gone above and beyond in trying to hire the right people for the job — putting banners on buses, and using the internet and local newspapers to get new people. There is a shortage of qualified people, but that is another reason we want to make sure all new mechanics in the state have training at their fingertips. We are fortunate that all bus manufacturers provide us with any training we need. The hard part is getting the new hire in the door. Pay, of course, is another issue, but districts see this and are working to help make it easier for us to hire the right person for the job.
4. What do you see as the biggest issues facing the student transportation industry?
Ever-changing technology is our biggest battle. Keeping ahead of the curve on multiplex wiring, new types of brakes, and software configurations. Buses every year seem to be safer, but with that comes more work when these products break down. The mindset of just changing the part is not where we are at. There are numerous things we have to do before we change anything.
We use computers to solve problems many times a day. We now connect to buses with computers and diagnose issues with ease. Test lights [for measuring electrical currents] seem to be a thing of the past as we move to multi-meters [which can measure voltage and detect faults].
5. What do you like most about working in student transportation?
To be a part of keeping children safe every day is the reason I stay in this field. I have always told mechanics all over the state that whenever you work on a bus, keep in mind that someone’s most prized possessions are on that bus. It is a great accomplishment when you see something done safe and right.