School bus drivers in short supply in county, nation

School bus drivers are in short supply all across the country, and that shortage has settled over Pulaski County as well.

“We’re probably in the worst shape for drivers we’ve been in since I’ve been here,” said Jess Shull – Director of Operations, Transportation and Maintenance for Pulaski County Schools.

Shull told the School Board on Tuesday that his staff – Vickie Jarrells and Gracia Nipper – have done an “amazing” job dealing with the shortage of drivers at the local level, keeping routes covered.

“We’ve tried everything we can think of to get drivers – put out signs, sent out fliers, advertised in newspapers.  I ask anyone I can,” Shull said. “If you see anyone who looks bored or is looking for a job and who wants to be a bus driver, have them come talk to me,” Shull asked the board members.

Noting the school system trains drivers for free, Shull said the current shortage of bus drivers is nationwide and not just in Pulaski County.

“It’s across the board. When I talk to other people in transportation, everybody’s struggling to get drivers,” he said.

Shull said a member of his staff said recently that what is needed to cure the situation is a recession, as bus drivers are plentiful then.

“Things are not in recession currently,” he added.

A recent report in the National Education Association’s “NEAToday” publication spoke of the driver shortage across the country.

In Lincoln, Nebraska for instance, the report said some bus driver positions remained unfilled despite the local school district offering sign-on bonuses of $1,000 for new hires.

A Michigan school district had to cancel a day of classes due to not having enough substitutes to cover for sick drivers.

According to the report, some school districts have come up with some unique ways in which to solve the problem – at least temporarily.

In Prince William County, for instance, about a dozen teachers signed up in January as substitute drivers when the opportunity was offered to them due to the shortage there. They were paid $18.50 an hour on top of their teaching salaries.

A school district in Hawaii had to turn to local public transportation to get kids to school, offering free monthly transit bus passes.

“Bus drivers are just an atypical workforce – I mean they’re part-time, there’s no benefits associated with it at all – and none in neighboring school districts either – they work four hours a day. It’s probably a different workforce that we’re drawing from,” Shull said.

“We try to hit the retiree demographic because it fits their schedule and lifestyle. Given the fact there are plenty of jobs out there in general and the way they’re (potential bus drivers) getting paid and the hours … it’s hard.”

Board member Beckie Cox noted she hears from employers all the time that they can’t find people to work. Cox works as Rapid Response Coordinator for the Commonwealth of Virginia and works with employees and employers to minimize the effects of mass layoffs or plant closings.

School Superintendent Dr. Kevin Siers related how he had worked a job fair last week and how it differed from the same fair two years ago.

“Two years ago we had over 40 teaching candidates come by. This year we had 4.  And it wasn’t just education. Same for the banks that were there … everyone averaged only about one person an hour coming by,” Siers said.

According to Shull, persons interested in bus driving positions can apply online at the school system website (pcva.us) or call 994-2513 for help. “We currently have 59 contracted route drivers, 4 sub route drivers and 3 trip drivers. We would love to have a pool of sub drivers up to 10-12 and a pool of 5-7 trip drivers,” Shull said. He added that pay rates vary greatly depending on the route regular route vs. special education route vs. trip.

Until more bus drivers can be found, Shull and his transportation staff and the drivers he has will continue to get the job done.

“We’re struggling, but we’re getting them to and from school each day,” he told the board.

By MIKE WILLIAMS, The Patriot

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