Chris Schulz Published

Bus Driver Shortage Persists Statewide

School_Bus_waiting_for_students.JPG Cecelia Mason

West Virginia has not been immune to a countrywide shortage of certified bus drivers to provide transportation for students. The problem and its solution lies with each county and its school system.

David Barber is the director of transportation for the West Virginia Department of Education. He said the state averages around 4,000 bus drivers, but only has just more than 3,700 currently working.

“There’s a lot of factors and there is no true fix for this,” Barber said. “We’ve had a lot of retirements over the last few years. Unfortunately, we lost some bus operators and different employees to COVID.”

As with other industries, COVID-19 lockdowns caused many veteran workers to reassess their situation, and take retirement earlier than planned.

Barber said there’s not much the state Department of Education can do, but points towards a statewide effort to bring retired drivers, as well as drivers licensed in other states, to West Virginia.

“We’ve had some retired bus operators that want to come back to work, and so we’ve modified our training guidelines to allow that without them having to go through an entire training program,” he said. “We didn’t modify anything to compromise the safety of the training or anything.”

However, at the November meeting of the West Virginia Board of Education, Barber reported that the statewide waiver of Policy 4336 has so far only led to 16 bus drivers coming out of retirement or transferring their out of state certification. Ultimately, Barber said it’s up to each county to recruit, train and hire their own drivers.

Brette Fraley is the executive director of transportation for Kanawha County Schools, the state’s largest school system with more than 22,000 students. He said part of the issue in his area is the county faces competition from other industries when replacing retiring drivers.

“What they call the missing piece is those folks that are older getting ready to retire and how to replace those folks,” Fraley said. “Here in the county, if you’re a bus driver you have an opportunity to become a truck driver. You move from a 200-day employee to 261-day employee. You start to gain vacation, you get an increase in pay, and more flexibility. We lose a lot of our drivers within the county, and then we lose drivers to competitors because there’s more money available.”

Fraley said it’s not just an issue in transportation, but in education and support staff compensation more broadly. With unemployment at a historic low, things are getting competitive.

“Going forward, we have to be competitive to keep those employees, not just bus drivers, our electricians or plumbers, or teachers or cooks or custodians,” Fraley said. “It takes everybody to get these kids to school, and keep them in school.”

Fraley said his system has about 30 vacancies right now, but more than 20 people are already in training. He also said driver shortages are nothing new and the county’s transportation department works to reduce interruptions as much as possible.

“Most of our drivers are working hard together and working as a team, sharing responsibility,” Fraley said. “Not only that, they’re sharing responsibility between terminals and helping each other out, getting the kids where they need to be on a timely basis, covering all their field trips.”

Eddie Campbell is Monongalia County’s superintendent of schools. With about 11,500 students, the Monongalia school district is roughly half of Kanawha’s size, but Campbell said transportation logistics are difficult regardless of a system’s size.

“I’ve been a superintendent now for 12 years,” Campbell said. “In my previous county, when I was in Tucker County, a much smaller system, we only had 12 drivers. But you still dealt with the issue of personnel and the substitute piece of it. Bus driving is difficult, it’s a hard job.”

According to Campbell, the Monongalia County initially had to cancel bus services for some extracurriculars. More recently, however, he said the county has had to cancel regular routes about a dozen times this school year. Each time, that burden falls to parents to get their students to activities or to school itself.

Campbell said Monongalia’s biggest issue right now is its substitute pool, but that issue itself is a symptom of the bus driver shortage.

“Because there’s such turnover in the regular drivers, the ones that hold those full time positions, many times we’ll train two or three drivers, and once they’ve completed their coursework, and they’re certified as a bus driver, they walk directly, immediately into a full time job,” Campbell said. “They don’t even go into the substitute pool, because there’s vacancies already sitting there waiting for them to go ahead and take a full-time job and so then that cycle just perpetuates itself.”

Campbell acknowledges that the training itself, while necessary for providing the safest service possible for students, can be its own barrier for potential drivers. Trainees must complete more than 50 hours of coursework and practical training without pay.

“You have to make the commitment to the time and the coursework, the practical driving that you have to do in order to be certified,” Campbell said. “It means you’re giving up time on the other end. So if you do have a job, you’ve got to make arrangements to take the courses. You’ve got to step away from another type of job in order to be able to take that coursework. With that said, the training is essential.”

It’s an issue the state is keeping its eye on. Some counties have already implemented pay for bus driving trainees, but it’s simply not feasible for all counties.

“I think there’s other factors that steer people away from the profession, but for those people that do have a true interest in becoming a bus operator, I do think that offsetting paying them while they’re getting the training would really alleviate some of the burden that these individuals would have in order to try to make ends meet for them,” Campbell said.

For those interested, Fraley has a clear picture of the kind of person best suited for bus driving.

“Our drivers suggest that you be an early riser,” Fraley said. “You enjoy being around children, good communicator, you would have to study and pass written exams, perform and pass driving exams, require a good driving record, no DUIs. A high school diploma, required to pass a drug and alcohol test background check. And you have to be able to maintain your school bus by writing up anything that’s mechanically wrong with it.”

Fraley and the other sources for this story all acknowledge that bus driving is difficult work. Difficult, but rewarding.

“It’s a hard job, but the people that do it find it to be a rewarding job,” Fraley said. “We were talking here recently about the bus drivers that took the Hoover group to the state playoffs and the fact that they were part of something that would allow those students memories for the rest of their life.”

Those interested in becoming a school bus driver should contact their local school district.