In this three-part series, the TransPar Group of Companies (TPGoC) takes an analytical look at the driver shortage plaguing the school transportation industry. By analyzing system efficiencies and budgetary considerations, TPGoC offers an approach to how school administrators and transportation professionals alike can look beyond the surface issues and understand how a combined approach of technological expertise and creative retention strategies can go a long way towards solving the driver staffing crisis.
The severity of your bus driver shortage, conditions of your local economic environment, and your school district’s programmatic and personnel policies all impact your staff’s ability (and timeline) to address a driver shortage. An integrated approach including technological expertise and creative strategies – recruiting resources, pay scale and incentives, bell times and routing, and even changes to the transportation system itself and its policies – can go a long way towards solving a driver staffing crisis.
Recruiting Strategies & Resources:
Within any organization, there is always going to be turnover, whether an employee retires, moves away, promotes to a new position, or finds a new job. But calculating how many bus drivers you really need is a multi-faceted issue that involves more than counting the number of routes you have. You must also consider having driver coverage for call-outs and sick days, vacation and PTO, peak service demands and activity trips, turnover rates, and the attrition that takes place during the often lengthy training and onboarding time period.
Ensuring you have the right number of people starts with acknowledging some basic characteristics about the individuals you are likely to hire. One of the most important considerations is for managers, and whether their applicant pool is comprised of candidates that need a job rather than want a job. Additionally, many school districts consider the six to eight weeks that it takes to properly train a new hire as simply “part of the process”, but for many candidates, the six to eight weeks without compensation is both untenable and unacceptable. This gets worse if the expectation is that the employee will be reimbursed for the pre-employment costs associated with CDL testing, drug testing, and physicals.
Given this, employers must be highly attuned to helping their candidates through the process. Paying pre-employment costs, establishing a transitional or training wage rate, and reducing the time from application to employment are critical concerns if there is going to be any hope of having a full complement of employees. In these instances, employers should focus on the value of having these employees versus the costs or the process changes necessary to bring them on board.
Pay Scale & Incentives:
Low unemployment rates make finding qualified workers difficult. If your pay rates are not competitive, it makes the task of finding skilled and employable individuals even harder. Offering benefits such as health coverage and paid time off may cost more on your bottom line, but it may help reduce turnover, and studies have found that people will often take a lower paying job that comes with benefits over a higher rate with no incentives .
By its very nature, school bus driving is a difficult job. Split shifts, obtaining a Commercial Driver’s License, and operating a large vehicle with your back to two classrooms’ of school-aged children is not for just anyone. While good workers are hard to find and retain, incentives such as guaranteed daily hours and the ability to make additional income with add-on routes such as activity trips, sporting events, community events, and other extracurricular work help motivate current employees and potential candidates who may still be on the fence about whether or not driving a school bus is the right move for them.
The idea of addressing total compensation rather than just the pay rate is an under appreciated concern for transportation organizations. When considering what a driver needs, 40 hours per week at $15 per hour is worth more than 20 hours per week at $25 per hour. This is not only because the wage is higher, but because it provides more steady and predictable time expectations and possibly access to other benefits. While this will be more costly to the employer, the question is how much more costly than the foregone revenue/re-imbursement and public outcry associated with having a shortage?
Bell Times & Routing:
School bus routing is, in part, a demand and supply question. The demand is generated by the policies and practices that establish who is eligible for service combined with how a school district chooses to connect those points. The supply is provided by everything done to get drivers into the program. What is often overlooked is the profound effect that changing the demand can have on an organization’s ability to supply a full complement of drivers.
The most critical component of the system that should be managed to help mitigate a driver shortage is the arrival and departure times to schools. Keep in mind that this is different than when schools actually start and end, but is focused on the earliest time a student can be dropped off and the latest time they can be picked up. Everything being done to “create” time in the system provides the opportunity to more efficiently use a school bus, which will ultimately reduce the number of drivers needed. Being laser focused on how each minute is used is one of the most important operational practices that managers can undertake to help mitigate their driver shortage.
System & Policy:
Changing the structure of your transportation system to curb the driver shortage may be the largest undertaking on the list, but it also has the potential to be one of the most effective. Organizations should have a model that incentivizes people to come to work, without extra cost to the budget. Adjusting pay rates versus benefits is a start, but school districts should look deeper into their policies to uncover areas of potential.
There is a strong case to be made that the popular “use it or lose it” approach to paid time off policies actually creates absenteeism within a workforce. When an employee is faced with taking vacation time or losing vacation time, most are going to take the time off thereby creating yet another driver seat that needs to be filled. Districts should strongly consider the incentives and disincentives they use to promote high rates of attendance, particularly from part-time and mission critical employees.
The cause of the driver shortage is varied and systemic, but the consequences of it are known and predictable. Driver shortages will lead to higher costs, poor services, and increased risk exposure as we try to squeeze ever increasing service demands from decreasing service providers. A driver shortage also increases the stress levels of everyone involved – students, parents, teachers, administrators, and transportation staff are all impacted. When a department is short on drivers, they are often forced to use other staff members to drive the necessary routes, in extreme cases utilizing teachers, coaches, and janitors, which puts even more stress on the overall education system.
To adequately address these concerns, one should acknowledge that it is about more than just increasing compensation and waiting on the next recession. Transportation organizations are encouraged to take a highly critical look at all aspects of how they manage personnel to assess where they may be impeding their ability to recruit, hire, and train sufficient staff. Additionally, districts should consider alternatives to the traditional employment model and evaluate the availability and appropriateness of third-party providers of both driver and transportation services. The safety, reliability, and cost effectiveness of these organizations are dependent on aggressively pursuing the most qualified work force available.