Driver Shortage Has Districts Spinning Their Wheels

Officials are raising wages and offering better perks in a bid to keep drivers on a tough job

Precocious students in the wealthy suburbs west of Austin, Texas, have been known to form chess clubs in the past. But this September, their match play in after-school hours was less the result of intellectual curiosity than of simply making the best of a bad thing.

They lingered at school because there were no bus drivers to take them home.

While the children played chess or went to the playground for soccer or poured over homework in makeshift study halls, the Eanes School District's severely understaffed bus fleets scrambled to drop off the first load of students so drivers could return to pick up the rest.

"It gets a little worse each year," says Jerry Molinoski, assistant superintendent of the district that covers part of Austin and rolling subdivisions to the west. "We needed about 50 drivers at the beginning of this year. We were 23 drivers short."

Severe shortages in the pool of drivers this fall have school district officials from coast to coast rushing to raise wages and benefits, even as they scour the local work force for anyone who can help.

Detroit searches for local autoworkers who retired early and might want the extra cash. Atlanta raised pay dramatically. A suburban Denver county hopes a strict student discipline code will help keep its drivers from quitting what everyone agrees is a tough job. But exasperated administrators like Mr. Molinoski feel their normally hectic Septembers slipping into chaos as they are forced to think more about driver recruiting than student test scores.

Split shifts, low wages

Blue-collar workers have never flocked to school bus garages as their first choice for employment. Drivers must get up before dawn and work a split shift for about $9 an hour, submit to increasingly stringent skill and drug tests, and safely deliver a generation raised on Bart Simpson reruns.

The humming US economy doesn't help matters. Many transport companies pay more for steadier hours, and managers compete in a labor pool where nearly everyone who wants work can find it.

Meanwhile, the Texas student body grows by 86,000 kids a year. "So it's a combination of factors," Molinoski says. "Low unemployment, the student growth, and the split-shift issue." The Eanes district, with some of the highest test scores in the state, now offers free tuition for the children of drivers who come from outside the district, an enticing perk that can save employees $7,000 a year.

John Shupe, who helps organize transportation for 90,000 students in the 34 districts of Wayne County surrounding Detroit, says the area faces a "critical shortage." Each of the 34 districts needs at least two more substitute drivers to fill out their rosters. The steady economy makes finding substitutes even harder than getting full-time drivers, because the subs take the training they receive from the district and use it to find a more regular paycheck elsewhere, Mr. Shupe says.

Combat experience helpful

For now, Wayne County is targeting autoworkers whose union contracts allow them to retire after 30 years; they are relatively young and don't mind part-time work. Military retirees are another good source, and the combat training can only be a bonus in this line of work.

School districts can sometimes stretch their wages, but they can't stretch their standards. Kathy Dietrick, one of the transportation managers for suburban Denver's Jefferson County schools, said her own choosiness makes her job more difficult.

"I won't take just anybody," she says, shouting over the din of three-dozen drivers chatting in their break room before an afternoon run. "It's not an easy job. They have to be a pretty tolerant individual, and they have to believe in equal opportunity and the diversity of our school system." Over Dietrick's head is the bus shop's motto: "Would you trust your children with these people?"

Dietrick's driver of the year, Molly Trueblood, agrees wholeheartedly that her job isn't for the faint of heart. Ms. Trueblood drives a steep mountain route where transplants from urban areas demand door-to-door service, even in Colorado's blinding snowstorms. And every fall day she threads her 77-passenger behemoth through the strutting bull elk who wander down to suburban meadows for rutting season.

But Trueblood notes that what many applicants see as the down side of the driver's job can be a boon for the right worker. She loves the generous school-district health benefits for her family, and the fact that her work schedule fits neatly with her kids' schedule. As for the split shift, many drivers have a small business they tend to in the middle of the day.

True, says Austin's Molinoski. "We're the live-music capital of the world, and we have a lot of musicians driving bus. They go to the studio midday to practice."

For those who aren't inclined to pick a guitar over lunch hour, Molinoski is arranging midday custodial or lunchroom jobs to fill in the gaps for drivers who say they want a full day's paycheck.

The students who can make the driver's life so difficult say they're not surprised at the shortage. Riding Trueblood's bus through the hills above Denver, 13-year-old Rachael Hackney says the driver's job is "really hard."

Because of all the screaming kids?

No way, Hackney says. "Because they have to get up really early!"

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