Help wanted: School bus drivers

“Drivers wanted” and “now hiring bus drivers” signs can be spotted around town and on school buses, especially as companies try to fill vacant routes in time for the start of the school year.

Looking for job security, paid holidays and summers off? Consider driving a school bus. 

Drivers are in demand as bus companies and school districts struggle to fill open positions. 

Transportation managers can’t put a finger on any particular reason. It might be the responsibility of hauling children to and from school that can be overwhelming for some. Or it could be the split shift during the day. 

For Tom Fraser, a driver and trainer for Minnesota Central, it’s that very combination that drew him to the job. Now 71, the affable school bus driver sold his auto repair business in White Bear Lake, traveled a bit and decided he needed more to do in retirement.”I didn’t want to stay home and watch Oprah,” he said. “I drove a school bus in college and liked it. I love the kids.” 

Minnesota Central contracts with the Mahtomedi School District. It might be the only bus company in the metro starting the school year fully staffed. White Bear Lake Schools Transportation Coordinator Mike Turrito is short about five drivers. Rehbein Transit, which serves a small portion of White Bear, is short eight drivers.

For the past four years or so, Rehbein Transit General Manager Steve LaTour said Rehbein has dealt with a driver shortage. “It just keeps getting worse every year,” he said. “Historically in our industry, whenever the unemployment rate is low, our industry really struggles to get people. When the … unemployment rate gets higher, then we seem to strive and find people.”

Fraser is aware of a base right now that is short 25 people. “I know at least three places I could get a job tomorrow,” he said. Minnesota Central’s contract manager, Mary Jo Edmondson, agrees. “You have a school bus driver license, take your pick for a job anywhere,” she said. 

School bus drivers make anywhere from $19 to $23 per hour. A commercial driver’s license is required, which involves a series of written tests, a road test and a training period. Drivers must also pass a Department of Transportation physical, pre-employment drug screening and a criminal background check. 

Last year, even office personnel were out driving buses, Edmondson recalled. 

Why is it hard to retain drivers? “I think it’s the split shift,” Edmondson replied. “There’s also a fear of driving a 40-foot bus. It’s easier than people think.” LaTour said, “It’s a commitment. Realistically, it takes a good five to six weeks and they are not earning any money while they are studying: that is all on their own.” 

And then there’s misbehaving children. That’s the rewarding part, according to both LaTour and Fraser. “There is probably a misnomer out there that kids are bad. Obviously, there is a handful out there that you struggle with, but to me it is a really rewarding job,” LaTour said. “Oftentimes we are the first people that they see going to school and the last one they see going home.”

Fraser said, “The kids are fantastic.” The grandfather of seven still keeps a picture on his iPhone from a parent thanking him for taking care of their child. “Gee whiz. I never got that when I worked on cars,” joked Fraser.

Yes, bad weather can make driving scary. “With that comes the feeling that I got 200 kids home safe today,” he added. 

Some companies allow drivers to bring their children along during shifts.The rigs are nicer to drive, too, Fraser pointed out. Buses have automatic transmission, hydraulic brakes and push buttons on the steering wheel to operate the door. Seats are higher to offer better visibility.

Every bus in the Mahtomedi fleet has two cameras and GPS. Cameras record to a hard drive, for the protection of both drivers and students. If a student is getting picked on, Edmondson can see it. She also knows how fast a bus is traveling and if a driver makes harsh turns and stops. She knows what time the bus arrived at a stop and when it departed.

White Bear Lake’s Turrito said the district’s shortage problem is no different than anywhere else. 

“We have enough drivers to cover routes, but we need subs and drivers for activity buses,” he said. 

The transportation coordinator said he’s had three applications over the last year. For people who need benefits, drivers qualify at 30 hours. That includes 11 paid holidays.

Turrito said, “We don’t lose too many each year. I think it’s a benefit of a school-run operation. They have the same routes, the same kids. They get to watch them grow up. We have a good core of drivers. They are really vested in making sure those kids get home.”

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