By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — A yellow school bus rolls down the street weekday mornings and afternoons — a service parents and students expect.
But the routine may be in jeopardy.
School districts with varying student populations all over the Capital Region are facing a shortage of bus drivers that, according to some districts, has gotten significantly worse over the past two years. While a turnover in drivers is common as drivers retire, in recent years, the shortage has become more crippling, and districts are having trouble recruiting new drivers to replace the ones who leave, according to transportation officials.
Al Karam, the transportation director at the Shenendehowa Central School District, confirmed that while the shortage issue is cyclical, it becomes worse when the economy picks up and fewer people are looking for part-time jobs. Karam added that bus driver shortages are an issue nationwide, and it’s difficult to solve because there is a slim pool of qualified candidates.
“In our profession, we can’t just take anyone off the street and put them behind the wheel of a bus,” he said. Shen lost 14 drivers last school year and was able to recruit 10 new ones, said Karam.
The average age of a bus driver at Shen is 55, and the job usually is a good fit for retirees or people looking for some supplemental income, he said.
Randy Jerreld, transportation supervisor at Mohonasen Central School District, said he also used to pull from retirees or stay-at-home parents to fill driver positions, but their numbers are dwindling now.
“It’s been tough to find applicants,” he said. “We hire just enough to keep our heads above water here.”
Lori Stern, who splits her time as assistant transportation director at Niskayuna Central School District and transportation supervisor at Scotia Glenville Central School District, said that part of the challenge in getting people to sign on as bus drivers is people can’t usually afford to live on just a part-time job, a common reality for new bus drivers until full-time drivers retire. Also, the three months of training, coupled with the three months it could take to schedule a school bus road test, is too long to wait for people who need jobs right away, she said.
She added that, in order to receive a bus driving certification, applicants can’t have any marks on their licenses.
“There’s a lot that you need to go through,” she said. Jerreld and Karam also cited the lengthy training process as a deterrent to prospective drivers.
Karam noted that, along with the time it takes to certify people, it costs Shen up to $7,000 to train each driver.
Cheryl Dalton, director of transportation at Saratoga Springs City School District, confirmed the shortage has gotten worse since 2015. Though she pointed out that Saratoga employs many longtime drivers from diverse backgrounds who love the job and form relationships with their students, the challenge lies in convincing new drivers that the field is worth entering.
“It’s an enormous responsibility,” Dalton said. “A lot of times, it’s just getting people in the doors to begin with.”
Shen employs 40 full-time bus drivers and 13 substitute drivers who cover 179 routes each day. Mohonasen has approximately 42 full-time drivers with seven substitutes, and Scotia-Glenville has around 68 transportation employees, including full- and part-time drivers, bus monitors, and substitute drivers. Saratoga Springs City School District has around 138 total transportation employees, including full- and part-time drivers.
Karam, Jerreld, and Dalton all said the pressures of dealing with students, as well as the trepidation around driving a large vehicle, keeps many from applying.
But finding full-time drivers is only one layer of the multi-faceted issue. All five of the districts interviewed noted an urgent need for more substitute drivers who can pick up any routes left uncovered when another driver can’t work or is needed to transport an athletic team. Dalton called substitute bus drivers the “backbone” of the transportation operation.
Karam said he would like Shen to have at least 25 to 30 substitute drivers, and Stern said she would like to have six substitutes — she has two now. Oftentimes, Stern and Jerreld both said, mechanics are needed to step in as drivers.
Transportation professionals are experimenting with different solutions, but success has been inconsistent. Karam said Shen has sent email blasts about the need for drivers and has advertised on social media and with flyers, but with with minimal success, even though the starting pay is almost $20 an hour.
Jerreld said Mohonasen offers pay that is greater than minimum wage and provides benefits to part-time drivers. He speculated that districts being flexible might help entice more people to the career. One example is the fact that, at Mohonasen, substitute drivers are sometimes hired as bus aides to start, so they get experience on buses — and a paycheck — right away.
“It’s a way that people don’t have to wait for three months to get a check,” he said. “Thinking outside the box will help us in the long run.”
In Saratoga, Dalton said the district has had some success through job fairs and test-driving buses. When given the chance to practice driving a bus, Dalton said, most people realize it’s not as intimidating as it seems.
Brown Transportation, a company that contracts with Schenectady City School District, did not return calls seeking comment.
Jerreld said he is looking toward the future with trepidation, as he doesn’t know a concrete way to end the driver shortage. But, he said, he takes some comfort in the fact that all districts around the country are trying to work through the same problem.
“I’m not alone,” he said.
Dalton added that districts must be competitive and offer new incentives to entice people into the field, but at the end of the day, they’re all still faced with a worsening shortage.
“It comes full circle, if you don’t have enough drivers in general,” she said. “We can only do so much.”
“Everyone has the same problems,” Karam said. “It’s a vicious cycle, and we can’t seem to get ahead.”