Local Company Gets Creative to Combat National School Bus Driver Shortage

Burnett Transit has gone to unique lengths to try and attract drivers.

OnFocus – When the pandemic hit the U.S. last March, many businesses came to a screeching halt. Sports leagues postponed and canceled games and seasons, schools were temporarily out of session and tourism was virtually non-existent.

The short-term effects of the pandemic can be seen in these immediate shut-downs but what were some of the long-term effects of this pandemic? One can be seen within school bus companies across the nation.

In a February 2020 article, before the pandemic, School Transportation News reported that 80% of school bus companies nationwide were understaffed. That number has only increased as the pandemic has taken root in the U.S.

Joe Burnett, owner and operator of Burnett Transit which services the Abbotsford, Colby and Spencer School Districts, said the shortage has pushed his team to the limit and they will now have to say no to a trip for the first time since he has been with the company.

“For the first time in the history of our company, or certainly since I’ve been here in 1987, we know the day is going to come where we have to say no,” Burnett said. “[Schools] are going to call and say, ‘That game that was supposed to be played on Monday night is now on Thursday night, do you have a bus?’ We have a bus, but we have no driver. For the first time, it’s actually going to happen. We had to refuse a school and it’s never happened in my tenure of being here.”

Bus-driving is largely a part-time job with a few hours in the morning and a few hours at night available for every-day route drivers. Therefore, a large part of the bus-driver community are retired workers who aren’t looking for a job that is as demanding or time-consuming as a full-time career.

Burnett said there are different reasons for the shortage but the pandemic is the biggest one.

“This is the first time in my career here that I can honestly say we are now in a severe or critical condition,” Burnett said. “There are a lot of different reasons. The pandemic—people that may have considered driving immediately thought ‘I don’t want to take my chances being in a confined space like a school bus.'”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “Risk for severe illness with COVID-19 increases with age, with older adults at highest risk.”

All of this has impacted the bus driver community but the shortage has been going on for longer than the pandemic. Burnett said the company was short on trip and route drivers two years ago and that problem has only grown since then.

Relief came in the form of the tourism industry coming to a halt. Progressive Travel, Burnett’s coach bus division, didn’t have its usual number of vacation or school trips.

Drivers that would otherwise be driving coach buses were inserted into school bus routes. As things return to normal around the country, those drivers will be back in coach buses which will create more openings on bus routes.

Burnett said the company is constantly hiring and it has taken drastic measures to try and lure prospective drivers and once they are with the company, people usually stick around.

“We don’t have retention issues,” Burnett said. “We lose people to reasonable situations, it’s not because we just lose them. We don’t have retention issues, we have issues getting people to consider the industry. If they see this laundry list of stuff that we’re doing [for them], they might want to consider it more.”

Incentives include, a signing bonus, paid training, retirement plan, referral bonus, safe driving bonus, attendance bonus, daycare assistance and other perks.

Burnett claimed that people are afraid of driving bus because of the danger associated with a bigger vehicle but he said he has only flat-nosed buses which are easier to drive as opposed to a conventional or “dog-nose” bus.

“They are way more maneuverable and most companies don’t buy them because they are more expensive,” Burnett said.”I’ve always felt you get what you pay for. If you have a safer vehicle that is easier to maneuver for the drivers, why would you not do that.”

The other issue that deters potential applicants according to Burnett is the idea of having to deal with behavior-related issues with students on the bus.

“We have very few true disciplinary-related issues,” Burnett said. “Mostly, because we deal with a lot of that internally unlike larger school districts where the bus company just says to the principal, ‘here’s what happened.'”

Bus drivers see kids, particularly younger kids, every single weekday during the school year and Burnett said that makes being a school bus driver very rewarding.

“The industry has said this and it’s so true, in a lot of cases, we start their day and we end their day,” Burnett said. “The drivers who are truly professional get that. As they get to develop a relationship with their kids, they can tell when a kid gets on the bus and they’re off. Even the smallest thing, like saying, ‘Hey, today is going to be a good day for you.’ That’s all they need to hear.”

We welcome your stories! Contact us at [email protected]!

Neal Hogden
Author: Neal Hogden