Bus companies scramble for drivers as start of school nears

  • A school bus advertising driver opportunities with the Concord School District is seen along North Main Street in Concord on Thursday, Aug. 10, 2017. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Monday, August 21, 2017

As everybody’s thoughts turn to the start of school, you’ve probably noticed signs urging people to sign up to become bus drivers. In fact, you’ve probably noticed them all summer long.

“We’re looking for school bus drivers 12 months a year,” said Walter Perry, executive director of the New Hampshire School Transportation Association.

Things are especially difficult this year, with New Hampshire at virtually full employment and most companies scrambling for workers.

“It gets worse year after year,” said Jeff Finfrock, general manager for New Hampshire operations of Student Transportation of America. “Right now the economy is good, and if the economy is good, people opt to go for a full-time position. Then we’re stuck with having vacancies or openings.”

Yet with buses stored at 12 locations in New Hampshire, and runs more than 300 routes for school districts throughout the state, the logistics can be tough.

“Sometimes we have to cut and paste runs together ... if we don’t have enough drivers,” Finfrock said. “If there are different bell times, sometimes we’re able if a person drives in school district A and they’re done at 8 o’clock, we can move them to school district B for the morning run.”

One difficulty with getting people to drive school buses is the split shift. The job takes up a couple hours in the early morning and a couple hours in midafternoon, two short shifts that can end up occupying much of the day.

The pay isn’t bad – a beginning driver for STA makes $15 to $17 an hour, Finfrock said – but it rarely turns into full-time work.

“Our demographic is retired folks and stay-at-home moms, that’s what we aim for,” he said.

Easterseals, which runs bus programs for special education students in several school districts – mostly in the Manchester and Concord areas – and provides door-to-door transportation for elderly and disabled clients, is also having problems finding drivers, even though it can often put together a full shift by combining jobs.

“We’ve definitely seen an issue with hiring staff over the last, probably, three years. It has been very challenging for us because our work requests have increased significantly,” said Fred Roberge, vice president of transportation for Easterseals New Hampshire.

Another obstacle to getting new hires is training.

Easterseals drivers use smaller buses – often with just 14 seats – that may not require a special license, but a full-size school bus has between 65 and 84 seats. Driving a vehicle with more than 16 passenger seats requires a special Class C driver’s license.

Under state guidelines, training involves at least 10 hours of classroom time as well as in-bus training in the type of vehicle the driver will be using. Most companies require hours of training before a new driver goes solo, and state guidelines require at least eight hours of refresher training every year.

“I think initially they’re intimidated by the size of the equipment,” Finfrock said.

Training doesn’t include just dealing with the bus itself and other drivers, but also dealing with the passengers.

“Part of their initial training is dealing with student behavior, and we have monthly meetings for various situations,” he said. “There are lessons like how to talk to people – you get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

He said that changing times can make the job harder.

“There was a study that came out that said 25 years ago the biggest issue on a school bus was a kid chewing gum,” Finfrock said. “Today it’s a kid carrying a gun.”

(David Brooks can be reached at 369-3313 or dbrooks@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @GraniteGeek.)