School buses ready to roll despite driver shortage

Local companies ramp up recruiting efforts to attract retirees, shift workers and parents

PORT WASHINGTON TERMINAL MANAGER Mike Gross of Johnson School Bus Service is ready for the start of school this week. While transportation companies are struggling to find drivers across the country, there is a surplus locally. Photo by Sam Arendt
By 
JOE POIRIER
Ozaukee Press staff

Local bus companies began the school year this week with enough people behind the wheel despite a school bus driver shortage that has caused headaches in districts across the country.

But that’s not to say that hiring drivers has been easy in an era of low unemployment, school bus company officials said.

“This is a tough job to sell. I always tell people, if I can get them in the door and give it a try, they’ll like it,” Johnson School Bus Service’s Port Washington Terminal Manager Mike Gross said. “If you ask somebody if they would like to be a bus driver, they usually roll their eyeballs like you’re coming from Mars.”

According to a study by the National Association for Pupil Transportation, 70% of the respondents, including busing companies and school districts across the country, said the driver shortage is their No. 1 concern. The lack of available drivers is causing a number of transportation companies to cut routes and double up on passengers.

“I think the title of bus driver can seem intimidating and a little misunderstood. What people don’t realize is how rewarding this job is, how flexible the schedule is and how accommodating to everyone’s life situation that the role can be,” Director of Recruitment Kristy Church of GO Riteway Transportation Group said.

Gross has been in the busing industry for 45 years and said the driver shortage is a symptom of the generally tight workforce nationwide.

“Every company is competing for workers. With student transportation, we’re more obvious because we’re taking everybody’s kids and that’s a big deal. We’re more visible,” he said. “Luckily for us, we have extra drivers. People stick around here for a long time. We have a handful that have been here for a number of years.”

Church and Gross said they primarily recruit new employees through referrals. Drivers are typically retirees and shift workers seeking to supplement their income.

Some of the drivers are parents who are able to drop off and pick up their children from school. Gross said some of his workers have youngsters too young to attend school, so they bring their kids to work.

“It’s kind of a nice fringe benefit because instead of paying for day care, they can take their kid along on the bus with them,” he said.

Gross said he used to hire drivers who were 18, but now there is more red tape because of insurance providers.

“It’s really hard in this business to get young people. First of all, you can’t hire them if they are under 21 and most insurance companies don’t want you to hire people under 25,” Gross said, noting the legal age to drive a school bus is 18.

Officials said one of the major deterrents for joining the industry is the cost and time it takes to obtain a commercial driver’s license, and not many companies offer compensation for schooling.

“It takes some individualized training to put people through, but it isn’t very difficult,” Church said.

Riteway’s Cedarburg terminal has been busing students for the Grafton School District since 1988. This year, the company will serve approximately 2,500 Grafton students, including those attending private schools.

The company, which is based in Oak Creek, also serves the Cedarburg, Slinger, Elmbrook, Germantown and Mequon school districts and provides transportation for some Milwaukee Public School students.

Church said the majority of drivers live within 10 to 15 miles of the bus terminal.

“We’re feeling really confident going into the new school year,” Church said. “We have good coverage across all of our terminals and we have plenty of room to reinforce our drivers team with a pipeline of new people so we can promote our existing drivers to some expanding roles.”

Johnson Bus Service has been in business since 1942 and provides rides for students attending the Port Washington-Saukville and Cedar Grove-Belgium school districts. Last year, the company bused 1,250 students to Port Washington and Saukville schools.

Gross said his terminal has 35 drivers gearing up for the school year and is expecting to bus about 1,200 local students this year.

Gross said his drivers work to build a relationship with the students.  

“The kids are very manageable. If you develop a relationship with them when you first start, it will go good,” he said. “Most of the horror stories you hear are myth.”

When school is out of session, most of the drivers for both businesses remain on board, providing transportation for charter services.

 

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Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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