NJ hiring managers are getting creative to find bus drivers amid shortage. Here's how

·3 min read

Hiring bonuses. Gas card giveaways. New legislation.

In New Jersey, lawmakers, transit officials and private companies are getting creative to hire drivers as companies, schools and agencies clamor nationwide to fill the shortage of those holding commercial drivers licenses, commonly referred to as CDLs.

Assemblyman Sean Kean, R-Monmouth, said his office doesn't usually get phone calls about school issues, but lately his phone lines have been tied up with parents calling about their kids stranded waiting for school buses and difficulty arranging travel to school sports events.

In response, Kean co-sponsored a bill that would allow people without a CDL to drive a "Type S" school bus, which is a smaller bus that has up to nine passengers.

"The idea would be if we expand the pool of people who can drive them, that may free up the true CDL users to drive bigger buses," Kean said.

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Asked if there are concerns about safety from letting non-CDL drivers operate the smaller buses, Kean said that was the tradeoff, but added that his bill would still require Type S bus drivers to be trained in safety, working with children with disabilities, and any other training required by the Department of Education for Type S drivers.

"We’re just looking for some way to provide these school districts some relief," Kean said.

Since the pandemic began, NJ Transit has been dealing with increasing bus operator shortages. Currently, the agency employs 3,240 drivers, down 5% since last June and 7% compared with June 2020. The ideal roster number is 3,600, agency spokesman Jim Smith said.

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The agency has had to come up with innovative ways to find potential drivers. It worked with the Motor Vehicle Commission to acquire the addresses of all 151,212 CDL holders in the state and sent postcards to them all starting in January.

The postcards boasted the offerings NJ Transit would provide if hired:

  • A $6,000 hiring bonus for CDL holders with a Class B (or A) with Air Brake and Passenger endorsements

  • A $3,000 bonus for candidates with a CDL permit

  • A competitive salary, health benefits, and retirement pension.

Other efforts include offering current bus employees a $1,000 bonus if they refer a new hire, and two hiring events last month resulted in 59 conditional offers, Smith said.

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"In the four-[plus] months since the mailer went out, NJ Transit has hired 209 bus operators," Smith said. "That compares to the four-[plus] months prior to the mailer, when we hired 147 operators, so we have seen an uptick in hiring since the mailer."

There are currently 57 drivers in training, too.

Coach USA, a Paramus-based company that provides contracted service on some NJ Transit routes and runs private routes nationwide and in Canada, is holding a hiring event Wednesday.

"We’re literally going to be interviewing people on buses, and we’re going to make this as engaging as possible to really understand what we’re all about, which is not just a transportation company providing service but also a technology company," said Dan Rodriguez, a Coach spokesman.

Coach services six NJ Transit Hudson County routes, which at the height of omicron left about 20% of trips unstaffed, a problem exacerbated by the national shortage of CDL drivers.

On Wednesday, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., Coach will do hourly gas card giveaways, provide lunch and have opportunities to meet staff to talk about openings across the board — drivers, mechanics, cleaners and other positions.

"Everyone will have an opportunity to speak to someone who works currently in different capacities at Coach, not only drivers, but in management," Rodriguez said.

The event will be held at 349 First St. in Elizabeth.

Colleen Wilson covers the Port Authority and NJ Transit for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering the region’s transportation systems and how they affect your commute, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: cwilson2@gannettnj.com

Twitter: @colleenallreds

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: With NJ bus drivers in short supply, signing bonuses abound