School districts across the nation are struggling with school bus driver shortages and Bulloch County is no exception.
The Associated Press reported recently about the national problem and Paul Webb, chief operations officer for Bulloch County Schools, said the Bulloch system has experienced a similar major driver shortage for the past three years.
“Over the last three years, maybe, is when it’s got especially bad for us,” Webb said. “The last three years we’ve ranged between 14 to five drivers down . . . at any point in the given year.”
Currently, Bulloch County is eight drivers short. Also, four additional drivers are on long-term leave, meaning that the county is short about 12 full-time drivers, Janet Tanner, transportation supervisor for Bulloch County Schools, said.
Overall, the school system has a team of 113 drivers, 17 bus monitors, 21 maintenance personnel and 7 mechanics. According to statistics provided by the system, more than 5,300 students are taken to and from school each day. Drivers collectively travel about 6,000 miles daily across more than 113 different routes. Drivers also travel an additional 52,000 miles annually for more than 1,300 fieldtrips and athletic events, bringing the total annual miles traveled to more than 1.5 million miles.
Causes of the shortage
One cause of the shortage is the high turnover rate for bus drivers. In 2018, Bulloch County Schools hired 19 bus drivers and lost 17 drivers, an 89-percent turnover rate, Tanner said.
Along with high turnover, training to become a bus driver is extensive and can take months to finish.
For someone to become a bus driver in Bulloch, one must:
- Come in for training to prepare to get a commercial driver’s license (CDL)
- Take a test to get a CDL, which is an out-of-pocket expense of $100, assuming passing on the first try
- After passing, which may take multiple tries, a week of state mandated training is required
- Must spend six hours driving a bus without students
- Must learn how to pre-trip a bus and must know all the parts of a bus
- Must be tested by a third party
- Must pass a background test, physical and drug and alcohol screening
- Finally, must have six hours driving a bus with students
The whole training process can take about two months, Tanner said.
“I would guess an excellent student, who has come here and can pass everything the first time, it would take at least two months from start to finish before they can become a sub for our county,” Tanner said.
Another cause Webb pointed to is the amount of people applying to be bus drivers for the county is tied into the economy.
In a down economy, the county sees more people applying to be drivers because they have difficulty finding fulltime jobs. But as the economy improves, many bus drivers leave for other jobs.
“The drivers will opt to go into the trucking industry, let’s say, or because they have a commercial driver’s license, that we helped provide them, the doors are kind of opened up for even heavy machinery jobs,” Webb said.
Webb said drivers in Bulloch County have a starting pay of $13.46 per hour or about $12,118 yearly. Bus driving is only a five hour-a-day job, so the pay is not as high as it would be in other similar industries.
One of the major consequences of having a shortage of bus drivers is the need to split routes between other drivers, Webb said.
When a route is split, the students on that route are divided among another driver’s route, so a driver is required to drive their regular route, as well as drive a part of another driver’s route.
The first issue is that it delays the time that students may get home, which may cause parents to worry.
Webb said the county has routes down to a system where they can predict within a small window of time when a student should arrive at their stop. This means that a student will get home at around the same night every day, barring unforeseen circumstance. When a driver is forced to split a route, however, it can cause the bus to arrive at its regular stops later than usual.
“If I drive a bus that has 30 students, there may be as many as 30 stops . . . and we got it down to know that your child is going to be home between 4:02 and 4:07,” Webb said. “Well, if you have to split up the children of another bus and I have to take on 10 more students, there is a very good chance that it’s going to vary that time instead of 4:02 and 4:07, now your child may not get home until 4:17.”
The other issue with splitting routes it that it causes drivers to bus students they normally don’t drive and may not know very well, which may put drivers in an uncomfortable or unfamiliar situation.
From the driver’s seat
Faith Mobley is a five-year veteran bus driver of Bulloch County Schools, though she did not necessarily plan to have a career in transportation.
“Funny enough, transportation is that industry that I kind of just . . . fell into it,” she said. “But once you’re here, it’s almost addicting. Once I found out about it, I immediately wanted to be involved.”
Mobley said that while driving has its difficulties, such as dealing with unruly students, it has its rewarding and memorable moments. One moment that stuck out to Mobley was her interactions with a student who had some behavioral issues.
“When I first got on that route, I thought ‘I don’t know if I’ll be able to handle it,’” she said. “Then coming every day and starting to kind of get to know (the student) and see what they were dealing with at home, made me change my approach. Trying to spend more time trying to converse with them in the morning, trying to make sure when they got on the bus to ask them how was their day. Just the little things, trying to be polite to them and little things like that made a difference to the way that they were pleasant.”
Mobley said that one of the reasons that she has stayed is the opportunity to interact with so many people.
“I think a big portion of it is that I do find pleasure in this job from dealing with people,” Mobley said. “Yes, there are different opportunities, but how many opportunities do I get to interact with so many different people? On the next level, the transportation side of it of actually being able to maneuver a vehicle in some tight situations, that's like a . . . five days a week thrill that you get.”
While the county expects to continue to see a future driver shortage, officials have adopted a few strategies to bring in new drivers, Tanner said.
First, the county has started to use social media to promote new job openings. Along with that, on weekends the county will send a bus driver out to a parking lot with their bus and they will hold a sort of roaming open house where interested people can have their questions answered.
To combat the long training process, Bulloch County has also increased the amount of driver training sessions they hold from three a year to seven, with a session about every month and a half.
Finally, the school system has been working over the past few years to try to gain a significant pay increase for its drivers.
Anyone interested in becoming a bus driver can find the application and complete list of requirements on the Bulloch County Schools website at www.bulloch.k12.ga.us/busjobs.