The woman at the job fair seemed like a great candidate to become a school bus driver.
She had experience driving a van to transport children with special needs, and her personality was “very delightful,” according to Pam Martinez, vice president of human resources and risk management for DATTCO.
The New Britain, Connecticut-based bus company was holding the job fair to help fill out its ranks of school bus and motorcoach drivers, which typically number between 1,800 and 1,900 total.
Martinez talked with the woman who was interested in working for DATTCO and then had her take an online assessment created by Gig Harbor, Washington-based firm JOBehaviors. According to Martinez, the assessment provided insights into the candidate that she would not have picked up on in an interview.
“I could see her answers,” Martinez recalls. “Question after question, I was thinking, ‘That’s not a good answer.’”
In the end, the woman scored a 1 out of 5 — the lowest rating in the JOBehaviors assessment — and DATTCO declined to hire her.
JOBehaviors is one example of assessments that can be used to screen school bus driver applicants. Advocates of these tools say they help predict a prospective driver’s performance on the job, rather than focusing on their personality or even their experience.
At a time when many school districts and contractors are struggling to recruit and retain enough school bus drivers, some see applicant assessments as an efficient way to identify people who will be a good fit for the job.
“I think it’s helped us pick out the better candidate,” Martinez says. “Getting the right candidate is better than getting a lot of candidates.”
Hitting Close to Home
For Hal Taylor, director of operations for Cleveland (Tenn.) City Schools, two fatal school bus crashes not far from his district pointed to a need for better assessment of driver candidates.
First, there was the December 2014 crash in Knoxville, Tennessee, about 80 miles northeast of Cleveland. Investigators found that school bus driver James Davenport, 48, sent and received multiple text messages in the time leading up to the crash, in which Davenport’s bus made a sharp turn, crossed over a concrete median, and struck another school bus. Two students and an aide were killed.
More recently — and even closer to home for Taylor — there was the November 2016 school bus crash in Chattanooga, Tennessee, about 30 miles southwest of Cleveland. Six students were killed and more than 20 were injured in that incident. Police estimated that school bus driver Johnthony Walker, 24, was traveling at about 50 mph on a road with a 30 mph speed limit and an advisory speed of 25 mph for curves.
The National Transportation Safety Board said that Walker had apparently deviated from his normal route when the November crash occurred. The investigative agency found that since the beginning of that school year, Walker had had one reportable crash and one non-reportable crash. Also, multiple complaints had been lodged about his driving and his behavior toward students.
In both the Chattanooga and Knoxville crashes, the school bus drivers allegedly exercised poor judgment, Taylor notes.
“In the Knoxville crash, that guy was texting a prostitute at the time,” Taylor says, citing a finding of the investigation. “That’s definitely a flaw in character that caused the death of people.”
Regarding the Chattanooga crash, Taylor cites the reported complaints against the driver, the finding that he was working another job, and concerns about his level of maturity.
“It doesn’t seem like he was a very good candidate as a bus driver,” Taylor says.
Those two high-profile tragedies, both close to but not related to his school district, led Taylor to seek a new tool to help in his own driver hiring process.
“This has allowed us to go ahead and weed out people … that don’t have the right kind of attitude and patience to make it as a bus driver.”
Hal Taylor, discussing the Judgment Index
Director of Operations, Cleveland (Tenn.) City Schools
On Feb. 1 of this year, Cleveland City Schools began using a program called the Judgment Index Safety/Risk Assessment. The district’s school bus driver applicants complete the online assessment after passing background checks.
Cleveland City Schools is working with Atlanta-based consulting firm The Dash Group to administer the Judgment Index, which has been in use in the business world for about 40 years. The assessment asks the respondent to rank various topics based on their personal values, and then it provides the employer with a report that is said to point to the respondent’s likely use of judgment on the job.
The Cleveland City Schools transportation department has used the Judgment Index for about 15 to 20 applicants so far. Taylor says that it seems to be successful in identifying candidates who aren’t cut out for the demands of the job, and he has turned down a few applicants because they scored poorly on the assessment.
“This has allowed us to go ahead and weed out people … that don’t have the right kind of attitude and patience to make it as a bus driver,” Taylor says.
As an example of what Cleveland City Schools is working to avoid, Taylor tells of one of his drivers who was hired before the district implemented the Judgment Index. The driver caused constant problems, Taylor says, which culminated in her stopping too close to railroad tracks, then driving across when the warning lights began flashing and the bells sounded. There were students on the bus, but no one was injured. The driver no longer works for the district.
“It was just scary,” Taylor says of the breach of safety protocol. “I like to think that we’re doing something to [keep] from hiring that kind of person who would take those risks.”
As with many other school bus operations, hiring and retaining drivers is a key challenge for Cleveland City Schools. The district, which currently employs 37 drivers, is experiencing high turnover. Since the start of this school year, Taylor has hired seven drivers but has lost the same number.
The local unemployment rate is low — about 2.9% — and the job market is highly competitive for employers, particularly with construction booming. Current and prospective drivers are often attracted to positions with full-time hours and benefits. Also, ongoing media coverage of the Chattanooga crash and the charges against that former school bus driver hinder recruiting efforts, according to Taylor.
“Probably the biggest thing hurting us … people here are seeing that gentleman sitting in jail,” Taylor says. “It scares potential candidates off.”
Addressing Common Challenges
The industry’s challenges in recruiting and retaining school bus drivers — and the risks posed by unsafe drivers — also led the National Association for Pupil Transportation to the Judgment Index.
NAPT Executive Director Mike Martin says that the association recognized a common concern among transportation directors. As he puts it: “How can I be sure that the people I’m bringing in to drive buses and work in my school system are going to be reliable, competent, responsible — people who have safety as their foremost goal?”
NAPT worked with The Dash Group to develop a customized version of the Judgment Index, dubbed the School Bus Driver Safety and Risk Index. The online assessment costs $40 per use, and it’s expected to take applicants 10 to 15 minutes to complete.
As with the general version of the Judgment Index, a report is provided to the employer after an applicant takes the assessment. An overall result rates the candidate, from “very weak” at the low end to “preferred” at the high end. Ratings are also given for 15 specific categories, such as focus and concentration, stress levels, following directions, problem-solving ability, and capacity to deal with difficult people and situations.
NAPT recommends using the School Bus Driver Safety and Risk Index as a first-line screening for applicants. Martin notes that it doesn’t replace an interview, but it can help rule out weak candidates before spending more time and money on them for interviews, background checks, and drug tests.
“Once you’ve got the results, you can determine whether to bring [the applicant] in for an interview,” Martin says. “It’s another piece of information that tells you about someone’s capacity for exercising good judgment.”
Catherine Hickem, CEO of The Dash Group, explains that the index uses an algorithm to assess driver candidates based on their values, and, she says, it can’t be “gamed.”
“You’re going to know who is sitting in front of you, not just what they tell you,” Hickem says. “This assessment really gives you insight … that’s just not going to come out on a resume or in a quick interview.”
Taylor of Cleveland City Schools says that using an assessment provides an objective measure to stand on — and it can back up the more subjective impressions of an applicant.
“You do your best in job interviews to try and figure out if the person you are considering will be safe, and even though you may feel unsure about them, you may not have any reason to turn them down for the job,” he says. “Since I have been using the Judgment Index, the potential bus drivers that I had questionable interviews with have generally been the ones the index indicates a problem with.”
Need for Objective Screening
Unbiased data on a driver candidate is hard to get from a resume or an interview, notes Bill Bland, president of ProDriverHR, a technology company based in St. Albert, Alberta.
“I call a resume a marketing document. Who’s going to give you a resume that says anything but good things about [themself]?” Bland says, adding that interviews can also provide a skewed view. “People are trained to act a certain way in interviews.”
ProDriverHR offers an evaluation tool called DriverFit, which enables employers to build a benchmark based on their existing top-performing drivers. Then they can ask an applicant to complete an online evaluation, which typically takes 30 to 45 minutes. The employer then gets a profile of the applicant to compare to their top-performing drivers.
ProDriverHR also provides a video-based assessment called Hazard Perception Evaluation, which prompts the user to quickly identify on-road dangers.
Depending on which components are used, costs for the ProDriverHR assessments range from $49 to $99 per use. Bland says that the tools aim to help fleets increase driver retention while decreasing risk.
“There’s a huge driver shortage in all industries,” he says. “We want to make sure not only that the client hires … a good, safe driver. Mostly, we want you to not hire the wrong driver.”
SafeWay Driver Fitness Centers in New Berlin, Wisconsin, is one of the providers of the ProDriverHR tools. SafeWay CEO Jeff Borchardt has been working with Wisconsin school bus contractor Student Transit Eau Claire on assessments for its drivers.
Student Transit has used a ProDriverHR program for about 35 drivers since July 2016. Marty Klukas, general manager of Student Transit, says that the company is currently having drivers take the assessment after they’ve been hired. The results can help in determining what type of route to place a driver on, for example, but at this point the company isn’t ruling out applicants based on the assessment.
“In the future, it would be nice to do this before we run background checks and bring them in for interviews,” Klukas says, adding that the goal is “to be able to glean some firm data to make a decision prior to the interview process, potentially saving additional resources.”
Predicting Good Behavior
JOBehaviors, the assessment that DATTCO is using, has been developed for various industries by analyzing top performers in each field.
The version for school bus drivers is based on a long list of key behaviors, such as driving defensively at all times, properly performing pre-trip inspections of the bus, and remaining calm when dealing with students. According to Mark Tinney, president of JOBehaviors, the assessment is designed to predict how someone will perform based on those ideals.
“It tends to be highly predictive,” Tinney says.
When an applicant takes the JOBehaviors assessment, the employer gets a report that includes a 1 to 5 rating (with 5 being the best). The company recommends focusing on those who score 3 or above.
Tinney notes that an applicant with technical experience — for example, someone who has worked as a commercial driver — isn’t necessarily a better candidate than someone who is more inclined to demonstrate safe behavior. For that reason, he advises using the assessment to “hire for behavior” and then “train for skill.”
“The reality is … the behaviors of safety tend to be brought with the individual,” Tinney says. “It’s very difficult through training to transform someone who’s not concerned with safety into a safe driver.”
Confirming the Results
With about 1,300 school buses transporting 110,000 students daily, DATTCO is constantly hiring for driver positions at multiple locations. Martinez, the vice president of HR and risk management, says that the JOBehaviors assessment has helped the company prioritize which applicants to bring in for interviews.
Results of the assessment have been backed up by real-world experience. For example, in 2012, DATTCO won a new contract and needed to hire more than 100 school bus drivers in a short amount of time. Due to the pressure of quickly building the driver staff from scratch, the company decided to give applicants the JOBehaviors assessment but disregard their scores and interview all of them.
“Three months after the contract started, we asked the branch manager to rate the drivers without looking at their scores [from the assessment],” Martinez says. After cross-referencing the manager’s ratings with the drivers’ JOBehaviors scores, the results were telling: “The majority of her problem drivers rated under three stars.”
The current widespread driver shortage has made recruiting more difficult for DATTCO — as for many other school bus operations. Martinez says that using an applicant assessment tool has helped balance the demands of filling positions with the need to weed out risky candidates.
“Right now, there’s just so much focus on the safety of school buses and drivers,” Martinez says. “Any additional tool to make sure we’re getting the right driver behind the wheel is very important to us.”