School bus contractors in different states face many of the same challenges — and have taken many of the same tacks when it comes to fuel choices and technology for their fleets.
That’s one of the key takeaways from a recent conference call with four contractors who hail from Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
Here, these pupil transportation pros share their thoughts on recruiting and retaining drivers, how video cameras can protect their drivers, and why they’re (mostly) sticking with diesel buses for the near term.
SBF: Tell us a little bit about your company, your fleet, and the service you provide.
Julie Vendetti-Lomberto: We are a family-owned and -operated business. We’ve been transporting for over 50 years — actually, the third generation. We’re based out of southeastern Massachusetts, and we have about 150 vehicles.
Mike Forbord: Schmitty & Sons is an employee-owned and -operated company that’s been in business since 1952. We currently operate around 425 buses, of which about 220 are school buses. So we also provide public transit and chartered services as well.
Paul Vellani: We’re based in Columbus, Ohio, currently operating 80 buses. We’re bringing on another contract this summer that will provide another 12 routes. We’ve been in business since 1981, in the school transportation business since the ’90s. Not your typical contractor. Our main focus is not the day-to-day routes. We’re here to provide backup assistance to all the local districts here in central Ohio and throughout the state of Ohio, really. We do the things that they can’t do, whether it’s temporary, permanent, or nonacademic stuff, routes, you name it.
Arlen Sanden: We have about 300 school buses in six locations. We also have almost 100 coach buses, limos, vans, party buses, trolleys. We’ve got just over 500 employees. … The driver shortage is a nationwide crisis and, of course, I just got out of a bus.
SBF: It sounds like that’s a big challenge for your company. Could you tell us about what you’re seeing, and any changes you’ve made in terms of driver recruitment and retention?
Sanden: Well, we try to retain them. We offer retention bonuses, we offer safety bonuses, we offer as much as we can. It is a national shortage right now, and all six of my locations are feeling it. A lot of people, unless they’re retired, don’t want just a part-time job. We just did some job fairs last week trying to get some new drivers in. It’s tough, because bus drivers are one of the unsung heroes and most underpaid people in the world.
We’ve got some good, loyal people, but trying to get new ones, that’s really, really tough. Plus, all the clearances they have to go through, all the training they have to go through — a lot of people take the class and go, “No, thank you.” So that’s where we’re running into trouble. We have a lot of rural locations and not a whole lot of people out here. So, not much to pick from.
Vendetti-Lomberto: In terms of driver retention, I think it’s very difficult. For me, that [is] one of my top challenges. When you have drivers, you’ve got to be able to keep them with you and compete against everybody else around you. It’s not a “mom” job anymore because in some cases, you have to have permission to bring your children on the bus. And sometimes you can’t bring them on the bus when you do trips, so it’s not that job anymore where you’re attracting that mom while she was staying at home raising a family. It’s hard. And to see all they have to do [as school bus drivers], they’re just overwhelmed.
Forbord: It’s the same here in the Midwest — increasing regulations, [and] low unemployment has also added to our problems of looking for drivers. We’ve been growing and expanding over the years. We probably struggle with recruiting, getting new people in, as much as we do retaining existing drivers. But it’s definitely a multifaceted approach to get drivers and retain them.
As far as the recruiting front, we’ve done the basic stuff of increasing the amount of money we’re spending on advertising. A few months ago, I actually hired a full-time recruiter — and not necessarily to just recruit people, but to educate people about what being a bus driver is and change the perception that it is an important role, you do have an impact on students, and it’s not some mean old person that drives the bus.
Vendetti-Lomberto: That’s a great point, Mike. The perception is really hard. We’ve had open houses before where people say, “I can never drive a bus. It’s too big.” We have let people get behind the wheel, and that perception [changes] … “Oh, I can do this. This isn’t what I thought it was.”
Forbord: Another thing that we’ve done on the retention side … we’ve tried to diversify and get business that’s outside of our normal realm, so that we’re able to keep drivers busy during the times they would historically be slow. So we’re really looking to find [business] over winter break, over the summer, to fill in the ups and downs of that. If someone is looking to make a year-round income being a school bus driver, then we have a variety of options to keep them busy outside of normal school bus driving.
Another thing on the retention side is we’ve done a lot more company events and outings — just as simple as having a cookout on a Tuesday making hot dogs, chips, and baked beans. … It gets people talking and interacting together and making it more of a team than just a bunch of people working by themselves. So that’s something that we think really helps boost the morale altogether. … [Also,] we’ve pretty regularly increased our pay rates over the last five years. That always helps.
“We’ve tried to diversify and get business that’s outside of our normal realm, so that we’re able to keep drivers busy during the times they would historically be slow.”
— Mike Forbord, Schmitty & Sons
SBF: OK. I want to hear from each of you about any new technology you’ve incorporated in your school bus operation and the results you’ve seen so far.
Vendetti-Lomberto: Well, the majority of our fleet have cameras in them. I would say about 20% also have GPS, and I’m all for it. I think that they protect and support the driver. … We had a driver who happened to be 84 years old and was just driving down a main road a couple of years ago, and a student had come out of a high school. The driveway was a hill. Long story short, he came on to the line of traffic of the bus. The bus hit him, and he survived, but it was a big accident.
I could not have been luckier that we had cameras in the bus that showed the whole thing, because what they were ready to do is to blame the driver. [The video footage] just showed that the child had come down the hill, out of a blind spot. … It was an unfortunate accident.
When the police did the investigation, my 84-year-old driver had the reflexes of a 48-year-old man. So, it was a big thing because age became a factor with the headlines of the newspapers around here. You know — “He’s too old to be driving.” Well, he passed his physical. He passed clearance — everything. ... I’m so happy that we have cameras in the majority of our vehicles for situations like this, because they simply protect the driver. As much as the driver might be afraid of them, it does help them.
Forbord: I would definitely second the comment of what Julie stated about cameras. We have cameras in every single one of our revenue-generating pieces of equipment. Ninety-nine-point-nine percent of the time, the footage is in favor of the driver and helps us easily sort out what happened, and we can clearly make a determination. And then also [the cameras help in] dealing with student behavior and that type of thing.
Vellani: Years ago, we were proponents and had Zonar when it was just introduced to the industry. It’s a great system. … The GPS parts of it were fantastic, [but the] vehicle inspections kind of allowed [the drivers] to be lax. Here in the state of Ohio, they’ve got to get recertified every six years, and they need to know how to do a vehicle inspection, not run around and tag some buttons and scroll through.
Sanden: Well, I’ve worked for some big companies. I was with First Student for 20 years. I’ve worked for Durham. I’ve worked for some school districts. I’ve been here at Fullington for about nine months, and … I’m introducing them to new technology. We’re looking to bring in new camera systems. The school districts we’re signing new contracts [with], we’re getting GPS in every bus.
I love Zonar because you can track anything you want. … We’re supposed to be getting 50-something buses brand new next year, and I hope to have them all equipped with everything you can possibly get. I want the GPS, the Zonar ... [and] I love back-up cameras because no more backing accidents.
Forbord: In the last year, we’ve installed GPS on all of our school buses. One thing I’ve derived from that is the comparative analysis that we’re using. It’s a feature in our Synovia system that allows us to match what was actually done to what was planned in our routing software. It’s extremely useful in seeing how the route is doing for time and making sure the driver is not making any “sweetheart” stops or doing anything like that. You can see where a bus is and see how fast it’s going. And for us, it was trying to leverage that to the next level. So, making that connection with our routing software. The next thing we’re looking to do is actually roll out the app to the parents so that they can see where their bus is and when it’s going to arrive at their stop. We’ll probably be piloting that here in the fall.
As far as the electric bus goes, we partnered with our local electric co-op and a state distribution wholesaler for electricity in Minnesota and purchased an eLion electric class C bus. We’ve got about 10,000 miles on it. It runs on a route every day in the morning and the afternoon. It pretty much just functions like your average bus. There really haven’t been any major issues or things that are out of the ordinary that you wouldn’t see with any other bus, so we’ve been extremely happy with that so far.
“In terms of electric buses, I really think it depends on the district and the region. I know that would not work for us.”
— Julie Vendetti-Lomberto, Vendetti Motors
SBF: That’s a good segue into the next question. What do you see as the most viable fuel for your school buses currently, and do you expect that to change in the near future?
Forbord: I think for the foreseeable future — and by that I mean at least probably five years — we see diesel as being the most viable, and just in the sense that we already have the infrastructure. We’re not sure that any other commodity-based fuel source isn’t going to jump in costs and be subject to the fluctuations that diesel is. So, you’re kind of swapping one for the other.
Over the long term — I think 10 years or more down the road — we do see an electric bus being a viable option. If you look at what a school bus does every day — going out in the morning, coming back to the yard, going back out in the afternoon — it’s really a perfect application for an electric bus. You know how far it’s going, you know where it’s going to be, and you know when it’s going to be back in the yard.
Vendetti-Lomberto: [For us,] it’s diesel. I don’t foresee a change in our area. I think pollution today with fuel is no longer a factor the way it was many years ago, and the perception is quite different. In terms of electric buses, I really think it depends on the district and the region. I know that would not work for us. In some of our cases, we’re traveling through several towns. One of our districts encompasses 21 towns. It’s impossible to do something like that on the mileage that we’re doing every day on those runs — never mind the athletic trips and field trips that come after that.
Sanden: Well, I would have to say diesel. I’d have to agree with them. … I’ve talked to the people with propane buses, and what’s holding propane or electricity back — it’s nice to have a small route that you can run those on, but when you have a lot of field trips, it’s impossible. We’re in a rural area, so it’s nothing to go 75 to 100 miles a day each bus.
And the propane numbers were terrible. It was 3 to 4 miles to the gallon for propane. Even if you can get it for 99 cents a gallon, that’s not quite where gas and diesel is. Now, gas is getting better. They have some gas buses where the motors are lasting pretty well … and gas is cheaper. And they’re very powerful — I’ve driven one. But I’d say you’ll never see diesel fade out.
Vellani: I agree with everybody. I think for now it’s going to be diesel. The electric part, the new Thomas and the Lions, are interesting. The city of Columbus, here where we’re based, was actually awarded a Smart City grant. It was a ton of money — $50 million. So, we’re in talks with them to try and get some funding for some electric buses and demo them here. I don’t know how well they’ll work in our fleet. Like I said, we don’t do a whole bunch of daily routes. I mean, with roughly 60 a day, in the scheme of things maybe 20% of our business is route work. So when a driver departs out of here at 5 in the morning in an electric bus, they’re going to need to be back in here after the route is done, get it charged, then go back out in the afternoon. And so it doesn’t fit. It’s great for a district that just runs the routes and doesn’t do a whole lot of academic field trips, sports, and whatnot. We’ll see. I’m curious to see how that looks going forward.
To read more from the contractor roundtable, go here.