School bus driver shortage may be 'long-term problem:' Expert

A shortage of school bus drivers has complicated an already complicated back-to-school season across the U.S. And according to some in the field, the problem might be a long-term situation.

"Some jobs like bus drivers we haven’t paid people well enough,” John King, Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education under President Obama, told Yahoo Finance.

"It’s been a challenge to get folks back to work. We’re seeing this in Anne Arundel County here in Maryland, where bus drivers actually went on strike, so we’ve got to pay folks more. We’ve got to make sure they have good benefits that will help with those kinds of jobs,” he added.

According to an August survey by the National Association for Pupil Transportation (NAPT) and other agencies, every region of the country is currently altering transportation services due to COVID-10. Seventy-nine percent of respondents in the Northeast said they have altered service, 77% in the Midwest, 66% percent in the South, and 80% in the West. And more than 50% of respondents described their driver shortage as “severe” or “desperate”.

Curt Macysyn, director of the National School Transportation Association (NSTA), said the situation is slowly improving but not by much.

“I would caution that we’re going to expect that the driver shortage will remain severe throughout this entire school year. But we’re working with folks at the state and federal level to, create systems where we can hopefully attract drivers and get them through the CDL system a little bit quicker than normal,” he said.

Hiring challenges

One of the biggest challenges, Macysyn says, is training and hiring delays. Hiring, he says, can take as long as 3 weeks.

“Depending upon the state or just the number of requirements, one around the CDL (commercial drivers' license), getting a commercial learner’s permit, there’s a fair amount of in-class learning that has to go on behind the wheel test, written test," he said.

“In some states, they require fingerprinting and also background checks, and you have to be medically certified … We can’t have a hiring event and put somebody behind the wheel next week."

Macysyn favors creating a school bus-only CDL that removes some of the extraneous requirements that come with becoming a professional driver.

“We hear a lot of folks are intimidated by getting their CDL because of what’s called the under-the-hood requirement. They have to open the hood and look through the components of the engine,” he said.

“That’s one thing we think we can look at and maybe get a license that would not decrease safety in any way, shape or form, but also be more conducive to the position of school bus driver.”

Lake Oswego, OR, USA - Sep 8, 2021: Now Hiring School Bus Drivers sign is seen next to an empty school bus operated by STA (Student Transportation of America) in Lake Oswego, Oregon.
Lake Oswego, OR, USA - Sep 8, 2021: Now Hiring School Bus Drivers sign is seen next to an empty school bus operated by STA (Student Transportation of America) in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

'Significant supply constraints'

Greg Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, tells Yahoo Finance that the pandemic has exacerbated a long-time issue.

“We’re continuing to see some significant supply constraints. It’s a situation that’s of course not isolated to that segment, but fairly broad based where essentially the COVID crisis led to pretty significant job losses, across that sector and we’re slow to see a return of the type of personnel that is qualified and willing to do the job,” Daco said.

Joanna Newman McFarland, co-founder and CEO of ride service company HopSkipDrive which provides transportation services for children in 9 U.S. states, said her company has seen an uptick in business during the school bus driver shortage.

She says that the company can get drivers up and running far faster in non-school bus vehicles such as cars or vans.

"We put drivers through a very rigorous process, background, and check fingerprints. Every driver has five years of caregiving experience that we can get through our process, much faster than a school district or a contractor can recruit, train and hire a school driver,” she said.

McFarland also pointed out that the competition to keep school bus drivers behind the wheel is stiffer than ever due to the likes of Amazon (AMZN) and others.

“There’s been a school bus driver shortage for over a decade … You could make a lot more money per hour, drive more hours, driving a truck or driving for Amazon or doing other things that are in high demand. It’s really hard to find people that want to do this job now. It’s a split-shift job and the pay is lower,” McFarland noted.

“This is a crisis that everybody is feeling now but this is a long term problem. It’s not just, ‘Oh, we’re going to have a couple of job fairs and give out bonuses and we’re going to solve this problem. It’s a systemic problem for the industry," she continued.

Reggie Wade is a writer for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @ReggieWade.

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