MILWAUKEE — Schools and bus companies around the state are desperate to hire bus drivers before the start of school. The shortage of workers has already hit some Milwaukee schools. It could also mean other districts see similar problems.
Frank DeJesus has been driving a school bus for more than 30 years. He loves his job and doesn’t understand why more people wouldn’t want to drive.
“It’s fun and it is a pleasure,” said DeJesus, who drives for Lamers.
This week, hundreds of students back for the early start of school in Milwaukee Public Schools were left waiting for their buses in Milwaukee. There is a shortage of drivers. That scenario is likely to play out in communities across southeast Wisconsin unless more drivers can be hired by Sept. 2. That is when most kids start school in Milwaukee County.
“There are several companies at each school, and yes, there are bus routes that are not being run,” said Diane Hanke, safety manager at Lamers.
It is not just a Wisconsin problem. Across the country, a national transportation survey by HopSkipDrive found 78% of schools said they were dealing with a bus driver shortage.
A charter school in Delaware is asking parents if they are interested in getting paid $700 a year to drive students to school.
Locally, companies are offering sign-on bonuses and increased pay with starting wages ranging for $18 to $22 a hour.
However, Milwaukee Public School says they are down 80 drivers. Lamers says they need 90. The East Troy Community School District says they need four. That is nearly a quarter of their drivers. East Troy’s director of building, grounds and transportation Andy Daniels says they are getting creative to fill the jobs. They found drivers by talking to their schools’ parents.
“We have two parents that are actually going to be bringing their preschool children along on the bus. So students or children that are not students right now, they're under the age of four, they're going to ride along with their mom,” said Daniels.
The Wisconsin School Bus Association says there was already a school bus driver shortage, but the pandemic made it worse. It says a third of their school bus drivers are 60 or older and fall into the high-risk category for COVID-19.
For DeJesus, this is his retirement job. Even with the pandemic, he can’t imagine stopping.
“I like it. I like to work with children and I like to see them grow up right,” said DeJesus.