What K12 leaders can do to recruit the new generation of bus drivers

The abundant availability of other higher-paying driving jobs is further eroding the number of available school bus drivers.
Mark Toback
Mark Toback
Mark Toback is the superintendent of Wayne Township Public Schools in New Jersey.

The school bus is an iconic symbol of the American education system. Millions of students are transported to and from school safely each day. Behind the wheel of each vehicle are dedicated school bus drivers, who play a critical role in ensuring the safety and well-being of the students in their charge.

School transportation is a massive undertaking in the United States, and the system has worked well for many years. Since the pandemic, various forces have created a pervasive problem where almost all school districts face challenges with retaining experienced drivers and attracting new talent. This article will explore strategies and considerations to attract bus drivers given the current labor market with an eye toward the future and a new employment model for bus drivers.

The challenge of retaining employees in just about any career area is real and has forced changes in most organizations. These same post-pandemic workforce challenges—along with some unique factors—influence school transportation. Historically, bus drivers work irregular hours, often on a split shift, and have an enormous responsibility that, increasingly, is not aligned with the compensation available in most school districts.

The abundant availability of other higher-paying driver jobs further erodes the number of school bus drivers. Reimagining the employment model for bus drivers will be critical for school districts to start reducing the number of driver vacancies. As districts enter into collective bargaining processes, there is probably no better time to consider these issues.

New employment model for a new era

As school employees increasingly choose careers outside of education and other potential employees choose careers in different fields, school districts must recognize the importance of competitive wages and benefits packages to retain employees at all career stages. School bus drivers carry the most precious cargo in every community and should be compensated at a level consistent with that responsibility.

While offering pay increases and benefits can make the work more appealing and better match the level of responsibility, this is only a starting point. School districts must look to the future and recognize that there is not much of a future if we fail to attract a new generation of drivers. The reality is that nationally, the average school bus driver is 57 years old, with only 5% of all bus drivers under 40 (Zippia, 2022). There are few occupations with an average worker age nearing 60. The ability to meet the needs of future drivers will be a crucial consideration when negotiating employment contracts.

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Considering that older workers value most of the same things in a workplace as younger workers, it is unnecessary to look at negotiations as a generational dichotomy. Instead, a holistic evaluation of workplace conditions can lead to the best proposals at the bargaining table while recognizing some minor differences.

What generational differences exist in the workplace that can considered in the negotiating process? Generation Z and Millennials value a workplace that allows for an excellent work-life balance, opportunities for growth, mental health support, and alignment with their values (Peterson, 2023) (O’Boyle, 2021).

Older workers value the same things but also seek to share what they know. Older workers also tend to be the most dedicated employees in any organization (Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, 2015) but they often have concerns about age-related medical conditions. The good news for most school districts is that real progress can be made in these critical areas that can attract the next generation of drivers with various employment options while retaining those valuable, experienced school bus drivers.

Contractual considerations:

  • While evaluating how competitive salaries are against other school districts is essential, considering compensation in private or non-student transportation businesses is important.
  • Evaluate the impact of offering retention bonuses to counter driver loss resulting from sign-on bonuses offered elsewhere.
  • Create career ladders where excellent veteran drivers train and coach less experienced drivers as part of their responsibilities.
  • Explore flexible scheduling options to accommodate drivers’ needs, allowing them to balance work with their personal lives more effectively.
  • Seek ways to fill out schedules with other work to address split schedule problems.
  • Seek out strategies to enhance benefits, such as options for family coverage or enhanced dental or eyeglass coverage

Non-contractual retention strategies:

  • Investing in ongoing training and support programs can enhance drivers’ skills and confidence, reducing turnover rates. It also reinforces the district’s commitment to safety.
  • Recognizing and appreciating bus drivers for their hard work through awards, ceremonies, and tokens of gratitude can boost morale and job satisfaction.
  • Marketing bus driving positions, using various channels such as social media, local job boards, and community events to reach potential candidates.
  • If possible, streamline the process of obtaining a CDL by providing training and resources to help candidates meet the requirements.
  • Engage with the community to foster a sense of civic duty and pride in becoming a school bus driver, emphasizing their essential role in education.

The shortage of school bus drivers is a challenge that school districts must address proactively. Districts must prioritize strategies to retain experienced drivers while attracting new talent.

A well-compensated, supported, and recognized bus-driving workforce will benefit the education system and provide a fulfilling career option for those passionate about student safety and community service. As the wheels of education keep turning, remember that bus drivers are the unsung heroes who keep the journey smooth and secure for future generations.

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