School bus drivers are the heartbeat of pupil transportation operations. Staying fully staffed with drivers can be difficult. But there are contractors and transportation directors who are good at doing just that.
School Bus Fleet has advice from people in the industry on ways to keep drivers onboard.
DeKalb County Central Schools: No Driver Shortage Here
Craig Long, transportation director for DeKalb County Central United School District in Indiana, is fully staffed with 44 full-time drivers and two substitutes, who fill in on routes as needed. The district transports roughly 2,280 students on 44 routes.
DeKalb County Central isn’t just fully staffed; it also retains many of its drivers. Of the drivers currently working for the district, 10 drivers have been on staff for over 20 years. The longest running driver has been with the district for nearly 35 years. She drives students whose grandparents used to ride her same bus.
School bus contractor Cook-Illinois has also maintained some of its drivers for many years. Julius Ceaser, director of recruiting for Cook-Illinois, says one of the company’s drivers has been on staff for 52 years; another driver has been there for 48 years.
So what’s the secret? Long and Ceaser say it boils down to a few things: equipment, morale, and benefits.
Keeping Up with Equipment
There is value in maintaining the buses and the equipment on them. Drivers enjoy operating newer vehicles. The average age of a vehicle in DeKalb County Central’s school bus fleet is seven years old.
Drivers can also rest assured that their students are in safe hands. All 60 of DeKalb County Central’s buses are outfitted with updated safety technology, like stop-arm cameras. They also have lighted signs.
It also helps to have lapped shoulder belts in the driver’s seats for added comfort.
Working as a Team
“I will not ask somebody to do something I won't do,” Long says.
He steps in and drives buses as needed and helps technicians repair buses.
“We’ve got a very relaxed open-door policy,” he says. “[I] pay attention to what's going on; [I] have a good feel for the pulse of the drivers.”
At Cook-Illinois, management conducts “stay interviews” with each of its employees, giving them a chance to express their thoughts and feedback about the company.
“This helps us to identify areas for improvement and make changes to better support our drivers,” Ceaser says.
Why Long Doesn’t Offer Sign-On Bonuses
When Long has open driver positions, he doesn’t offer sign-on bonuses. He doesn’t believe it’s fair to the longtime employees.
“I don’t like sign-on bonuses because I’m incentivizing new people, but not incentivizing my current staff. I feel that it would be wrong to give somebody a $1,000 sign-on bonus, but then have somebody that’s been busting their hiney for 10 years and they don’t get anything,” Long explains.
All of Long’s drivers are full time and are eligible for healthcare. They are paid a flat rate and are given mileage bonuses. Many of them take on additional positions within the district to make extra money as well.
Cook-Illinois’ drivers are all part-time. This is one common reason some drivers leave for other jobs; they want to work somewhere that offers them 40 hours a week or more. The company does offer retention bonuses to show appreciation for employees’ loyalty and hard work, Ceaser says. He believes the bonuses incentivize drivers to remain with the company long-term.
One thing is clear: drivers want good benefits. School Bus Fleet posted on its social media accounts, asking drivers to share reasons they stay with their employer. The most common responses include pay and benefits like healthcare insurance. Also among the responses were support with student behavior, respect, and support from management.
Helping Drivers Grow with Training Opportunities
Long offers paid training for his drivers and has a very active training program. When the district has in-service days, drivers still come to work. Those are generally the days when the drivers get training opportunities.
Training allows drivers to have peace of mind and awareness about things like general safety rules and disaster response, so they are prepared in case of emergencies, Long says.
Partnering with the School District
Ceaser says school districts who use contractors for pupil transportation can help contractors hire more drivers by advertising contractor job openings on their website, as well as with yard signs on their property.
“Clear communication between contractors and school districts is also crucial,” Ceaser explains. Contractors should keep districts updated on recruiting activities and any challenges they may be facing in filling open positions.”
Likewise, Ceaser says districts should provide feedback to contractors on the quality of service being provided by their drivers, as well as any areas for improvement.
Ceaser encourages districts to work alongside contractors to ensure their compensation and benefits offerings are competitive in the local market. Cook-Illinois sometimes loses drivers to other positions with more competitive pay.
“Ultimately, the school bus driver shortage is a significant challenge that will require ongoing effort and collaboration from all stakeholders in the industry,” Ceaser says. “While there may not be a quick fix, by working together and remaining focused on solutions, we can work toward addressing this issue and ensuring safe and reliable transportation for our students.”