As students around the country returned back-to-school over the past month, once again pupil transportation faced the reality of a school bus driver shortage. Even though we journeyed through a challenging school year in 2021-22, it seemed that the educational system still had not returned to pre-pandemic levels. That shouldn’t be the case this year, however, and that means the industry must prepare for what is on the horizon moving forward in a comprehensive and targeted manner.
Student transportation professionals are often asked two things in recent years with respect to the driver shortage:
1. How did we get here?
2. How do we solve this problem?
Employing linear thinking, the reasons behind the driver shortage are fundamental and logical. Let’s start with the fact that the driver pool has been populated by a mature set of individuals for several years. In fact, around the country, many civic-minded individuals have maintained an active lifestyle in retirement by driving a school bus. All of us know a former teacher, coach, or administrator who joined the bus driver ranks after they submitted their formal “retirement” papers.
As we know, things changed during the pandemic in a way for which no one could account. We lost drivers due to illness or death. We lost drivers who had medical conditions that made them reluctant to be exposed to the virus. And we lost drivers who simply reorganized their lives and priorities.
What we did not get was a flurry of new, and perhaps younger, drivers ready to grab the baton. A recent study released by the Pennsylvania Legislature in June indicated that, nationwide, 51% of school bus drivers are 55 and older. If you add in the 45-54 demographic, a whopping 76% of drivers are older than 45.
As you can see, like many industries, student transportation must get new professionals into the system. This represents a challenge that is simple, but not easy, because school bus driving remains a niche profession.
NSTA started to ponder the post-pandemic realities back in August 2020, when we sent a letter to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) highlighting this burgeoning problem, and more importantly, offering a solution.
The organization recognized that there were existing impediments to getting new people through the Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) process because the knowledge and road tests were a hybrid between what we do and what long-haul truckers do. We know by experience that lifting a bus hood and identifying engine components has been a deterrent to school bus driver candidates over the years. NSTA petitioned FMCSA to waive the “under-the-hood” testing requirement in January 2022 for 90 days, and there have been two additional waivers since that time.
To their credit, FMCSA understands the dynamics at work, and the agency took action in this time of critical need. Unfortunately, only eight state driver’s license sgencies (SDLAs) have agreed to adopt the waiver. Kudos to Florida, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Texas, and Wisconsin for helping get more school bus drivers in seats, as we already know that implementation is proven to help our situation. For example, we have been given statistics that 147 drivers already have used the waiver in New Jersey. If that number does not seem impactful, consider this – if an average school bus can transport 70 students then the waiver directly translates into over 10,000 students with a way to and from school each day.
NSTA applied to FMCSA for a five-year exemption in a letter we sent to the agency in June, and the application has recently been published in the Federal Register. We believe that a five-year window provides enough time for state motor vehicle agencies to implement system changes to make this a reality.
After careful consideration, NSTA remains confident that there will be no net loss of safety under this proposal, and we anticipate a successful outcome on this issue, so we can then move ahead with more solutions to proactively address the driver shortage.