Bus driver shortage leading to increased wages but also worry for districts, bus companies

As unlikely as it may seem, summer break is almost over, and in a matter of weeks children will once again line up on street corners all over the suburbs to board big yellow school buses and return to class. But the question facing many schools districts and bus service companies is: Who will drive them?

The number of applicants for open bus driver positions is down across the board in recent years, according to local school district and bus company officials.

"We're all shaking our heads, going, what is going on?" said Diane Walters, the human resource manager at Barrington Transportation, the company that provides bus services for Barrington Area Unit School District 220. "I'm not sure if we'll get back to normal or what, because if this is the new normal that's bad."

Dawna Choe, the director of transportation for Woodland Elementary School District 50 in the Gurnee area, said from January to May she received fewer than five applicants for bus driver positions.

In recent years, Woodland 50 transportation office employees, who are all certified and trained to drive school buses, have been called upon to occasionally have to ask to cover bus routes when there weren't enough regular bus drivers available said Chris Bobek, the associate superintendent of business services for the district.

The suspected culprit behind the shrinking applicant pool is the COVID-19 pandemic. Many suburban bus drivers are retirees, and the prevailing belief is that older people are avoiding bus driver jobs to avoid exposure to the virus, which has proved to be more fatal the older you are.

"The whole industry is watching this, going, is this going to be the change in the people who have historically been school drivers?" Walters said. "Did COVID ring that bell for us?"

To try to lure applicants, employers of bus drivers are offering increased wages or perks like signing bonuses and free job training.

First Student - the largest provider of school bus services in North America, operating a fleet of more than 44,000 buses across 38 states and seven Canadian provinces - recently offered incentives of $1,000 to drivers who recruit new applicants.

Walters said Barrington Transportation has increased their hourly wage each of the past three years and are offering more than ever before.

Alex Mayster, the executive director of communications for Naperville Unit District 203, said that district, too, is offering higher wages than before after the ratification of a new contract with their bus drivers union.

"The district made an investment in our drivers because they are so important," Mayster said.

Mayster said bus driver staffing levels are better now that the new contract is in place but noted the number of bus driver applicants out there is less than ideal. He said District 203 is still hiring.

Choe said she's hopeful by the time the school year starts Woodland 50 will have enough drivers on board.

Bobek agreed, saying he felt "hopeful" was the right word.

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