Steering past districts’ bus driver hiring woes

For nearly two decades, Pam Swanks has seen how growth has impacted how many area districts approach busing their students.

More students might mean purchasing more buses, which in turn means more routes for districts to create. It’s an issue most high-growth districts, such as Dripping Springs ISD and Hays CISD, must face at some point.

But an equally difficult challenge is finding enough drivers to operate those buses. While both HCISD and DSISD are not facing major driver shortages this semester, officials believe the lack of interest in the field is a growing state and national dilemma.

Swanks, DSISD director of transportation, said the district is currently short five to eight drivers in 2018. As a result, DSISD had to be “creative” in drawing and evaluating routes, while also moving around and making the best with the 38 staff members they have.

Recently, DSISD’s transportation department has received help from district middle school coaches who have their Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) and are qualified to operate a bus. Those coaches often take on additional runs before their school day starts.

“We would like to undo that creativity to get enough drivers,” Swanks said.

Hays CISD is also short approximately ten drivers in 2018, said Tim Savoy, HCISD chief communications officer. The shortage is nowhere near the crisis HCISD shouldered in 2017, when it faced a shortage of 50-plus drivers.

Part of the issue stems from a lack of consistent hours drivers can operate a bus, which can be detrimental to the recruiting process. Most drivers are only guaranteed 20 to 25 hours per week, with drivers often out of work during holidays and the summer. Savoy said many drivers in HCISD often take up lunch monitor positions at area schools, which can add up to a 40-hour week.

Swanks said the responsibility of transporting students could discourage people as well. She said the job is popular among retirees who often seek a second source of income.

“Driving them (students) on the bus, that’s a huge responsibility, and some people are not sure if they’re equipped to manage that,” Swanks said. “I respect that and that’s okay, but some people are unsure if they can do that. It’s a lot to take on.”

An additional recruiting challenge is constant competition with neighboring school districts, which is often dictated by the economy. As a result, districts try to stay ahead of their neighbors and try to offer as many incentives to entice prospective applicants.

Both HCISD and DSISD offer paid training for prospective drivers, which includes acquiring a CDL for new drivers.

“When the economy is good, and when people are finding work elsewhere, it’s a challenge for us,” Savoy said. “However, if the economy is bad, like we saw in 2008, we have a lot people apply for it.”

Constantly changing requirements for new and experienced drivers is also a factor districts must contend with. Anthony Shields, HCISD assistant director of transportation, said getting a CDL involves a full knowledge of the vehicle, both in operation and maintenance.

As a result, what used to be a 30-minute road test for CDL applicants can now take up to 90 minutes. Shields said there is more of a memorization component than in the past, and drivers are asked to know what’s happening under the hood.

“There are various factors that go into remaining fully staffed,” Shields said. “It’s not just here. Driver shortage is a nationwide issue and we as a nation are facing a lot of new challenges that aren’t helping us in retaining or getting new drivers.”

For many drivers, the stresses that can come with the job, including traffic snarls and impatient students, is often balanced by the rewarding experience they have. Roxanne Cantu, transportation coordinator, said word of mouth is often the best recruiting tool for HCISD, along with the district’s large sign near the administration office.

Elaine Hernsberger, who has worked with HCISD transportation for many years, said it’s an “extra blessing” to be able to transport students, especially those who might have special needs. Hernsberger said many drivers enjoy watching their students grow up over the years as they transport them to school.

“Most of them say it’s rewarding, mostly because of the pictures they get and it means the world to them,” Swanks said. “They know they are making a difference.”

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