As many school districts continue to struggle with budget challenges, First Student is working to broaden its services and incorporate new technologies to meet the needs of customers as well as staff. New developments for North America’s biggest school bus contractor include mobile apps, paperless shop technology, and a division that offers consulting, routing, and other solutions. First Student President Dennis Maple shares the details in this interview with SBF.
1. How would you describe the current economic situation for school districts, and what does it mean for First Student?
School districts face increasing funding pressures — it seems this will only intensify. We know district administrators must consistently find ways to do more with less. As the industry leader, First Student has strong operations and service capabilities. Our challenge, then, is to find ways to support more districts — specifically self-operated and smaller school districts — that struggle with effectively managing their transportation operation.
To do this, we recently introduced First Transportation Solutions. We believe these districts will benefit from First Student services such as transportation consulting, routing, maintenance, operations, safety, and procurement. This leverages our organizational expertise and experience and is available to districts that do not want to fully contract their transportation operation.
2. What’s the driver recruitment situation like for First Student’s operations?
Driver staffing continues to be a concern across the country. We’re looking at every angle to find innovative ways to recruit and retain the best employees. Every day, our drivers directly and positively impact a young person’s life. This is a unique opportunity, so we want to share it with as many people as possible.
We developed hiring events where candidates can test-drive a school bus on a closed lot. We want to show that, while it’s a big bus, it’s no big deal to drive it. As a result, more candidates have applied for open positions. It’s also enabled our communities to see us in a different light.
We also want to retain drivers by showing how much we value them. To do this, we’ve equipped our managers with new tools, such as our employee mobile app. Now, drivers can see local news, updates about weather delays and closings, and information about upcoming meetings and events on their smartphones. Our drivers are in the know while managers save time. We believe this is the first of its kind in the industry.
3. Speaking of apps, First Student recently launched a school bus tracking app for parents. How would you describe the demand for that type of technology?
I think the interest is strong and will continue to grow. We see that parents want real-time updates and peace of mind surrounding their child’s journey to and from school. District administrators want better tools for managing their bus fleet and staff resources. FirstView offers all of this functionality. It’s the industry’s most comprehensive and secure bus tracking app. It’s also the top-rated app in our peer group.
A unique feature of FirstView is the in-app feedback button. Within the app, a parent can directly interact in real time with our customer support team. This is a key differentiator. Currently, tens of thousands of parents are using FirstView, and more will be added next school year.
4. Are there any other new or upcoming technologies that you see playing a bigger role in school transportation in the coming years?
We’re constantly researching and developing new tools and technologies to better support school districts. First Student has long been a leader by investing in tools such as GPS and Child Check-Mate. In fact, we’re in the process of implementing paperless shop technology at all locations. This will make our maintenance teams more effective and efficient.
5. What was the highlight of the 2017-18 school year for you?
It’s hard to pick just one! We had a well-executed back-to-school season, setting the stage for an amazing year. Our customers recognized this and gave an overall satisfaction score that’s on par with our best ever.
Another highlight was our first year as a title sponsor of AASA’s “Superintendent of the Year” award. We’re passionate about K-12 education — this partnership is a great fit. David R. Schuler, superintendent of Township High School District 214 in Arlington Heights, Illinois, won the award this year. Congrats, David!
At First Student, we’re committed to supporting our school districts and driving the industry forward. I could not be prouder of my entire team.