MILWAUKEE — Parents across Wisconsin rely on the big yellow bus to get their children to and from school. But this year, more than half the districts in the country are facing a shortage of drivers.
It is leading to longer ride time on the bus, late starts and even absences for some students. To better understand what is behind the bus driver shortage, TMJ4 News went 360 on the issue.
“It is a joy driving around and having them on the bus and listening to their stories and joking around with them,” said Joe Lamb, Sheboygan Schools bus driver.
Lamb has been driving for years in Sheboygan. He loves his job, but he knows it is not for everyone, especially because it is a part-time gig.
"I just don't know if people can survive 25 to 30 hours a week, so you don't get any insurance benefits,” said Lamb.
A joint survey that the National School Transportation Association took part in found 51 percent of school districts across the country categorize their bus driver shortage as “severe.”
NSTA executive director Curt Macysyn says there are multiple reasons for the shortage.
"One, being the the actual COVID pandemic itself. The general demographic of our drivers is an older population. A lot of those folks were concerned for health reasons and chose to either retire or they (have) been on the sidelines, since the beginning of 2020,” said Macysyn.
On top of losing a chunk of the workforce to retirement, school bus companies lost a year of recruiting and training new drivers. That happened when districts like Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) went to virtual learning. MPS already had a bus driver shortage before the pandemic and then had students stay home for almost the entire school year.
"You're not going to recruit positions that you don't currently have or need,” said Macysyn.
The NSTA also found pay played a part in the driver shortage. The Sheboygan Area School District assistant superintendent Mark Boehlke says they raised the starting salary from $14 to $18 an hour. But so have other places.
“It always seems like you're trying to catch up,” said Boehlke.
He said they are now offering current drivers $1,000 to refer someone to the job. However, they know that still might not be enough.
"A lot of money has been spent on advertising, print and billboards,” said Boehlke. “We're trying to compete with manufacturing jobs and service jobs in the community too."
If it is not the pay keeping people away, there is also the time and money it takes to obtain a commercial driver’s license or CDL, which is required by Wisconsin to drive a school bus.
"You need to pass the general knowledge, you need to pass the air breaks, pass those two sections and also need to get a DOT medical card. When you get that, you need to go to the DMV with your birth certificate and you can get a valid permit,” said Anthony Staton, owner and instructor at Professional CDL Training.
Once someone gets a permit, Wisconsin requires a minimum of two weeks before you can get a license. It takes most people anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple months to do their training for a CDL. It can also be expensive if you pay for it yourself.
COST OF CDL
Medical Examine Certificate: $95
Staton says when people are looking to become school bus drivers, he refers them to bus companies because they will foot the bill due to the shortage of drivers.
“There are many school bus companies that will train you and they will train you for free,” said Staton.
He says even if you get through all of that, people with issues in their backgrounds will not be able to become bus drivers in Wisconsin. The state requires background checks and drug screenings to drive.
"You want someone who has a good driving record, a good background and a good attitude that is going to be able to work with kids and want to do the job,” said Staton.