Historically, summertime has been crunch time for bus companies to find — and retain — as many drivers as they can to fill routes for the upcoming school year. September is right on our doorstep.

Even though Rehbein Transit Inc. and American Student Transportation could both use additional drivers, they are both in better shape than they have been in previous years.

Steve LaTour has been the general manager of Rehbein for just over a year, but he has been with Rehbein's parent company, Minnesota Coaches, since 1989. Rehbein primarily serves the Centennial School District but also serves a small portion of White Bear Lake.

For the past four years or so, 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.”

Rehbein is currently eight drivers short, compared to six drivers short last year. However, the company has some additional drivers currently in training. LaTour guesses the one thing that might keep people away from the job is the commitment.

In addition to three written tests, a road test and a 14-day training period, LaTour said drivers must also pass a Department of Transportation physical, pre-employment drug screening and criminal background check. “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,” he explained.

LaTour thinks the responsibility of hauling children around can be overwhelming for some people.

“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,” he said. “Oftentimes we are the first people that they see going to school and the last one they see going home.”

The job's rewarding nature, split shift and pay are all reasons LaTour said people should consider the job. A school bus driver position can be nice for stay-at-home parents, as they can either take their children with them on the bus (depending on their age), or drive while their children are at school. The split shift is also attractive to many retirees who don't want to work a full eight-hour shift every workday. On average, school bus drivers make anywhere from $19 to $23 per hour.

Kevin Bisek has been the general manager of American Student Transportation for 10 years. The company has two terminals, one in Blaine and one in Maple Grove, and primarily serves the districts of Mounds View, Anoka-Hennepin and Minneapolis.

“We are not particularly short here because we have been actively recruiting,” Bisek said. “Yes, I could use 10 drivers easily at each terminal, but we are in really good shape and that is only because we have so proactively used multimedia and you-name-it to recruit.”

American Transportation is doing a lot better than some of the other large companies that have large contracts in big school districts, Bisek said.

“We have changed our process: it's nonstop. Back in the day, it used to be we would start pushing (for drivers) in June, July or August and now we just don't stop because there is still a lot of movement,” he explained. “Once people get their licenses, maybe they aren't going to like school bus driving and might leave the industry and go and drive a garbage truck or work for a city.”

One reason he thinks people might stay clear of the job is the responsibility.

“I think it is a societal fear. There is a lot of responsibility transporting students back and forth. We are not transporting frozen pizzas,” he said.

If you are a caring and patient person, the job is made for you, Bisek said. “You have to be the special type of person that cares. You have to be patient, not just with our students, but dealing with traffic issues and distracted driving,” he said. “It is a very rewarding job. I still drive as the general manager and I love it. I like to do the same routes if I can because then you build relationships with students. You get to see kids grow up.”

Bisek said it all comes down to how the company treats its people.

“The bus companies have to be flexible with folks due to schedules, families. The bottom line is you have to go to a company that treats you well, and that's what I think we do very well here at American Transportation,” he said. “We are not a ginormous company. We treat everybody with respect, like they are family. You can change the name on the building, but those drivers out there every day doing the job are what makes the business successful.”

 

Editor Shannon Granholm can be reached at 651-407-1227 or quadnews@presspubs.com.

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