boarding the bus

Some bus companies are having trouble recruiting enough bus drivers to cover all the routes they’ll need to run come the first day of school. (Daily News file photo)

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Chris Seiple showed up Wednesday morning for his third day of behind-the-wheel training to become a school bus driver for Minneapolis Public Schools.

His wife teaches special education students. But it’s a new scene for him.

The longtime chef decided he needed a break from the hospitality industry, where he worked in kitchens for 34 years. In searching for something new, the district’s paid Driver-in-Training program caught his attention.

As he works toward licensure, he’s getting paid and knows he has a job waiting for him. And he already has aspirations to explore this career path even further. Maybe he’ll go back to school to become a mechanic for the district or transition to another employer in need of commercial drivers, like UPS or FedEx, he says.

But for now his focus is on learning to safely maneuver the largest vehicle he’s ever driven, before adding a whole bunch of student passengers to the mix.

“It’s really fun because they want to get you comfortable behind the wheel as soon as possible,” he said, noting the hands-on training from the get-go helps “take the intimidation out of it.”

Minneapolis Public Schools launched the program in June, in an effort to combat a continued bus driver shortage that’s impacted districts all across the state in recent years.

“I would say this summer most companies have been spending more money than ever before — and have been more aggressive on recruitment — and they’re still in the same position,” says Shelly Jonas, executive director of the Minnesota School Bus Operators Association.

Private companies and district-owned bus operations alike are scrambling to fill out their school bus driver rosters. In many cases, that’s anywhere from five to 10 drivers, she says.

Those in the industry largely attribute dwindling applicant pools to an improved economy, where people can find jobs with fewer barriers to employment and more hours.

To compete for skilled labor, bus companies are investing more in paid training programs for applicants, along with advertising at local fairs and other events. Jonas says she’s also heard of employers parking a bus outside of a coffee shop, where they invite people on board to dispel antiquated notions of school buses.

“If you haven’t been in a school bus in a while, it probably looks a lot different. And it’s a lot easier to drive. They’re automatic,” she said, adding buses are now engineered to be greener as well.

In her experience, leading a company that operates buses in the Annandale, Maple Lake and Buffalo school districts, Jonas says banners and buses with signs on them continue to prove most effective when it comes to recruiting new drivers — that along with “the personal touch, calling people you know are retiring or have just retired.”

At the start of summer she had about 15 spots to fill. Now just a couple of weeks out from the start of the school year, she says her company is still in need of eight to 10 drivers.

Farther north, in Brainerd, the shortage is more acute.

“Right now we’re probably about 16 short,” says LC Baier, general manager of Reichert Bus Services, which contracts with Brainerd Public Schools.

He’s been in the business for the last 19 years. But the shortage is more recent, just in the last four years or so.

“Years prior, we never had a problem. By fall, you’d have an abundance of school bus drivers — wanting to drive special needs, fields trips. You could be selective, pick the best for the job. Now it’s not that way.”

In response, he says his company has doubled down on recruitment efforts — investing in everything from street corner signs and newspaper ads to job hiring websites and showing up at community events.

If driver positions remain unfilled once school starts, he says the school district will potentially need to reassess routes. One possible solution, he says, may be pulling students with a car — who are able to drive to school — off the bus list and consolidate routes.

In the St. Paul Public Schools district, Tom Burr, director of transportation, is determined to prevent a driver shortage from impacting routes.

The district contracts about 90 percent of its busing services out. Burr met with reps from all four school bus companies earlier this week and he estimates they are 50 drivers short, as a system, from where he’d be comfortable.

He adds that a number of companies said they have more potential drivers in training. But he’s still bracing for a shortage at the start of the school year.

Rather than lengthen routes, he’s come to rely on an alternative option: pulling licensed office staff to drive buses. That includes mechanics, trainers and managers.

“What it does is it strains the system,” he said, noting it takes longer to implement route changes, for instance, when those workers are spending fewer hours in the office.

Field trip times may be impacted as well, he said.

Rob Anderson, manager of training operations for the Minneapolis Public Schools’ transportation department, says hiring needs are looking a bit more manageable this year. The district owns a fleet of buses and operates about a third of its busing needs, with the remaining two-thirds contracted out.

Evaluating the in-house hiring needs, Anderson says things are looking pretty good right now, in large part thanks to the Driver-in-Training program, which currently has nine prospective drivers enrolled.

Additionally, at least a dozen more applicants are pursuing their permits right now so that they can enroll in the program. And Anderson says they’ll continue the program into September.

“We’d actually like to get more drivers than we need at first, because we feel it’s important for drivers to do ride-alongs,” he said. “We don’t want to rush them into a situation where they’re by themselves trying to do the job without some practical experience.”

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