Diane Kallemeyn prefers to work as a substitute bus driver for Wyoming Public Schools, but is now covering a permanent route. She arrives at 6:30 a.m. to transport hundreds of students across the district and to Kent Career Tech Center, racking up about 80 miles each day she drives. With a few breaks in between, she finishes driving after school in the afternoon.
“Right now, we are short drivers so I am on a run every day,” she said.
So are many other subs. Area schools are experiencing the nationwide shortage of bus drivers, putting transportation departments in a pinch to get students on the bus in the morning and back home after the final bell at a reasonable time. In Kent County, subs like Kallemeyn are covering routes, dispatchers are driving, and retirees are filling in to transport thousands of children every day. They’ve also consolidated runs and are constantly seeking applications for new hires.
“We’ve tried to be creative,” said Don Hebeler, Wyoming director of operations and support services, who advertises job openings with yard and marquee signs and district-wide emails. He recently had three new drivers going through the training process for four openroutes.
Countywide, Dean Transportation is looking to hire 50 drivers to serve Grand Rapids, Sparta, Cedar Springs and Kent City public schools as well as Kent ISD programs. The Lansing-based firm contracts with those school districts and others statewide. Statewide, Dean needs to hire 100 drivers total.
“We’ve seen this for a few years now,” said Ashleigh Wright, Dean hiring specialist. “We are working toward closing the gap by increasing advertising and increasing flexibility with training. We will train non-credentialed drivers and pay for training.”
Why a Shortage?
School officials named several factors at play. More positions in the job market are now available than a few years ago, plus there are strict requirements and fewer perks for drivers than in the past.
With the national unemployment rate at 4.1 percent, people are more easily finding full-time work without frequent split shifts.
‘We are still in need of five drivers. We could use more subs too.’ — Laura Tanis, Kentwood Public Schools transportation supervisor
New hires don’t receive traditional pensions as they did years ago, Hebeler said: “When a lot of my drivers started they got full benefits and a pension.”
In Godfrey-Lee Public Schools, one of Kent County’s smallest districts, they don’t have enough drivers cover field trips and athletic events, said Scott Bergman, supervisor of operations, transportation and custodial services. The district, which parks its fleet at the Wyoming Public Schools bus garage, often uses drivers from Wyoming, Kelloggsville and Dean Transportation to cover needs.
“There needs to be increase in compensation for both custodians and bus drivers,” Bergman said. District driver pay starts at about $14 per hour.
The biggest challenge, Wright said, is finding candidates that meet all requirements: a good driving record including no history of driving under the influence or careless driving; at least seven years experience driving; a valid Michigan license; a passed background check and fingerprint clearance. Candidates must pass a federal Department of Transportation physical and drug and alcohol screening.
“The number of folks who apply and get through the process is one or two out of 10,” Wright said.
Kentwood Public Schools began the school year with 10 open bus driver positions, of 36 total positions in the district. Since then, five were filled. “We are still in need of five drivers. We could use more subs too,” said Transportation Supervisor Laura Tanis.
Enticements for Recruits
Starting driver pay from district to district ranges from about $14 to $18 per hour. A minimum of hours is often required to qualify for insurance. Dean Transportation wages start at $16 an hour and guarantees a minimum of four hours per school day. Dean also offers full benefits, including health, dental, vision, a 401(k) plan and paid time-off to all drivers.
Caledonia Public Schools, a district covering more than 100-square-miles, has recruited drivers with the offer of a $250 referral bonus and $500 sign-on bonus. The effort led to hiring five part-time substitute drivers who cover field trips, vacation and sick days and after-school athletic events. Two more substitute drivers are still needed, said Transportation Director Brenda Witteveen.
Godfrey-Lee’s Bergman pointed out another issue may be contributing to the shortage. “It’s an awesome responsibility to be a bus driver,” he said. “You are responsible for the safety of those children from the the time you pick them up to when you take them home.”
In today’s fast-paced society, people are commuting in a rush. “We’ve had two dozen people go through our red lights (on buses) since school started and they came within feet of our kids,” Bergman said. “Everyone is in such a hurry these days.”