A West Bloomfield Schools bus heads out to begin its afternoon route.

A West Bloomfield Schools bus heads out to begin its afternoon route.

Photo by Deb Jacques

Birmingham, Bloomfield districts struggle to find bus drivers

West Bloomfield Schools among few with full transportation staff

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published September 16, 2021


BIRMINGHAM/BLOOMFIELD/WEST BLOOMFIELD — It took some finagling, but public health experts and school administrators were able to figure out how to get kids back into classrooms this fall.

Then they had to figure out how to get them there — literally.

Like so many industries, transportation has seen a steep decline in workers and applicants, causing a nationwide shortage of bus drivers.

According to a survey by the National Association of Pupil Transportation, 51% of responding districts said they’re experiencing a “severe” or “desperate” shortage of bus drivers. Two-thirds of those respondents said the shortage is their No. 1 concern heading back to school, and in the Midwest, 77% of respondents said they’ve had to alter their transportation service as a result.

“As school districts across the country return to in-person learning, COVID continues to have an impact on education in general and school transportation, scheduling and logistics, in particular,” Mike Martin, the executive director of the NAPT, said in a press release. “But let’s be clear — this is not a new problem. Nor is it easy to solve.”

That’s true, according to Kyle Anderson, the superintendent of business and operations for the West Bloomfield School District. While it’s true that pandemic unemployment benefits, particularly the $300 weekly federal bonus, deterred some potential drivers from applying for jobs, transportation in general has been hurting for a few years, with heightened requirements for training and receiving a commercial driver’s license, or CDL.

“It has been a problem with (other transportation services),” he said. “A year ago, we called the Michigan State Police to say ‘Hey, look. If we have a driver trying to get a CDL appointment, could you (expedite that)?”

Seeing the problem coming down the pike, WBSD ramped up its hiring incentives, including offering a $2,000 signing bonus and longer shifts than some other districts, since school bus drivers are typically hourly workers. Currently, the district hasn’t been impacted by the shortage. It has 42 drivers for 36 routes.

“I’ve been in school bus transportation for 28 years. I’ve been doing this long enough to have seen what doesn’t work and anticipate that and be prepared for it,” said Lynne Robertson, the transportation director for the WBSD. “The reason we’re able to retain drivers, not only hire but retain them, is that, first of all, our principals and administrators and staff are great to work with. They’re very supportive of our drivers and very helpful and kind. It helps drivers to know what happens, the staff is going to have their back. And then, the pay is pretty decent.”

Decent pay is certainly a plus, but Anderson said most driving positions in any district tend to be part-time, which means there’s no benefits package to speak of.

But that’s not always true. In the Bloomfield Hills Schools district, they’re looking to fill a 20-driver deficit. To do that, they’re providing full benefit packages to qualifying drivers.

“We have had many job fairs and a ‘Test, Drive, Hire’ event,” said Jane Mack, the transportation manager for BHS. “(We’re) offering benefits for the employee, including health care, vision, dental and retirement plans. The starting hourly wage for bus drivers has been increased to $19 per hour, and full training is being offered.”

A big hurdle in the race to find bus drivers is the process for obtaining a CDL, according to Durham School Services, which provides transportation to several school districts in southeast Michigan, including Birmingham Public Schools, which is short eight drivers daily.

“Visiting the Secretary of State has become appointment only, and that in itself can be a challenge for applicants getting their CDLs,” said Anna Lam with Durham School Services. “Being a bus driver is a critical position, and we suspect COVID has been a major contributing factor in the driver shortage.”

Some applicants, allegedly, could wait months for an appointment to get into the Secretary of State office to obtain the needed CDL. Once the paperwork gets started, it could be even longer before checks into criminal record and driving history are complete. To be clear, potential drivers can have zero demerits in either category.

After that comes the actual training, which Robertson said is fairly rigorous and thorough, for obvious reasons.

Then, some applicants still aren’t able to get behind the wheel, whether properly credentialed or not, because of discrepancies over the green.

And we don’t mean money.

“Now, even though marijuana is legal, because they have to drive and they’re working with children, they can’t use marijuana or even CBD oil,” said Robertson. “They’re all subject to random drug testing. We have some applicants come in and, when they hear that, they decide that’s a deal breaker.”

It sounds like a lot of hoops to jump through, but for the right candidate, driving a school bus really is a pretty good gig.

“It’s a desirable job to some who like their middays free and want their holidays and summers work-free,” said Mack.

The schedule is so desirable for some, Robertson said, that for years, districts had to turn candidates away because they just had too many drivers.

“In the beginning, it’s kind of tough for new drivers just getting a route for the first time. They’re learning their route and they’re getting to know the students,” she explained. “But in a month or two, it becomes second nature. That’s when it becomes a great job. You create these great relationships with the families they serve. And if you like to drive, it’s a great job. A lot of people like that split shift. They can work, go home for a few hours and run some errands, go to doctor’s appointments, get dinner started, or some go to another job, and then they come back in the afternoon.”

Durham School Services, a company of National Express, has positions open for drivers in training and bus assistants in the BPS district. To learn more, visit careers.nellc.com/jobs.