The Duneland School Corp. posts a sign looking for bus drivers on a bus parked at the district's bus barn along well-traveled Ind. 49. Staff photo by Deborah Laverty
The Duneland School Corp. posts a sign looking for bus drivers on a bus parked at the district's bus barn along well-traveled Ind. 49. Staff photo by Deborah Laverty

Local school officials are pulling out all the stops to get additional bus drivers on board.

The Duneland School Corp. has taken to posting a "Bus drivers needed; will train" sign in front of a bus parked at the district's bus barns along the well-traveled Ind. 49.

Other school districts, including Crown Point, Merrillville and Michigan City, also have prominently placed similar signs, advertised on marquees and used job fairs and social media sites to entice new bus drivers.

"We have tried everything," said Sue Harrison, transportation director at Michigan City Area Schools.

Local school districts aren't alone.

The need for bus drivers is one expected to remain at "critical levels" over the coming months with impacts to the industry's ability to provide consistent service stretching well into the school year, according to the National School Transportation Association.

Both contracted school bus transportation companies and district-run operations are struggling to find drivers, as a number of issues, including COVID-related health concerns and vaccine hesitancy, continue to escalate "despite the industry's best efforts," said Curt Macysyn, the NSTA executive director.

The need for bus drivers in the Duneland School Corp. was one that surfaced at least a year ago when many of the district's older drivers retired because of COVID-19 fears, Duneland spokeswoman Bridget Martinson said.

"We are having a hard time getting bus drivers. We are all suffering at all school districts. It's been trying to get people on board," Martinson said.

She said the need to hire more bus drivers is a new phenomenon since even a few years ago there were drivers who stayed on for several years and didn't leave.

"We used to have a waiting list which was used when sub drivers were needed, such as when a regular driver got sick," Martinson said. "Now we have a shortage of substitute drivers."

Martinson, and those at other school districts, said the reasons fewer people are applying to become bus drivers are complicated and not just due to the pandemic.

"I talked to HR, and one of the reasons people have listed as not applying is that they are intimidated by the job itself. There's a lot to learn before you go on the road and maybe they are hesitant to try," Martinson said.

Competitive market

Another reason for the bus driver shortage is the job market is very competitive right now with a number of choices and potential employees may be wanting more than a part-time job, Martinson said.

In light of that, Duneland offers its bus drivers hourly wages as well as a benefits package that includes health insurance.

Duneland, along with some other local school districts, also is offering its part-time bus drivers who want more hours to add on other school-related jobs, such as a food service aide to earn more money.

"We have a lot of people who do dual duty. It's a win-win," Martinson said.

John Becker, logistics coordinator at Tri-Creek School Corp., said, "We're short of drivers just like everyone else."

Becker, who most years directs transportation and doesn't drive a bus, has been called upon this year to take on a bus route himself due to the driver shortage.

"I'm driving every morning and afternoon," Becker said.

The Tri-Creek enrollment this year is 3,200, and about 50% to 60% of those students are bused to and from school, Becker said.

"We have 48 bus drivers, and we need one more for sure or two more. I could go as high as five more," Becker said.

The driver shortage has caused some bus routes to start earlier, and buses are picking up more students.

"Seven of our elementary school buses are jam-packed. The buses are really full having to deal with that," Becker said.

He agrees that the pandemic probably led to the bus driver shortage.

"COVID is the icing on the cake. We've seen more retirements and more people resigning than hiring," Becker said.

Tri-Creek offers a competitive hourly wage of $20.97, but that is generally for four hours, not eight.

Becker said his district, like Duneland, is looking to couple another job, such as custodial, for those who want more hours and more pay.

"We're looking at any options. We're not sticking to the old way of doing things," he said.

Lack of employees is not something that just school transportation officials are experiencing, Becker said.

"It's a problem everyone is having, including the food service industry and any entry level job. Our industry is suffering from the same thing. It's the same issue. Will it turn around? I imagine," Becker said.

Harrison said Michigan City Area Schools also has a need for new bus drivers and has done its best to seek employees who will be hired as bus drivers.

The Michigan City school district buses some 3,500 students and right now has 50 to 55 drivers.

That's about 10 drivers short.

"I'd love to have 65 bus drivers," Harrison said.

Her district pays bus drivers $15.50 per hour, and they are guaranteed a 4-1/2 hour day.

She said the shortage of bus drivers is something relatively new and exasperated by COVID-19.

"When I started 10 years ago, we had 10 to 12 subs and no problem filling routes. ... This was the job to have. We have seen the downturn in the last few years," Harrison said.

She said COVID-19 took its toll on the older bus drivers quitting, and then last year about half of the school year was virtual, so no drivers were needed.

"We lost several due to COVID that had been with the district a long time and they had health issues. And some of our drivers weren't making enough money since we didn't come back to school until February," Harrison said.

She said bus drivers can make a good wage by taking on additional work such as field trips and other midday events.

"It's a great part-time job for retirees or moms wanting to work around their kids' schedules. We do all the training and pay for it. ... We are doing what we can do," Harrison said.

'Doing the best we can'

Crown Point School Corp. also is experiencing a shortage of bus drivers, Director of Transportation Monica Vasquez said.

More drivers are needed particularly since the district's school age population has increased.

"This shortage started last year through the pandemic, and the population growth in our district also continues to affect us," Vasquez said.

The impact hasn't been substantial enough to create double routes or considerably extended times, but we do need more drivers, Vasquez said.

"We offer a tiered system of competitive pay that depends on experience, with benefits for drivers at the top tiers. We provide all of the training for drivers to obtain their commercial driver's license (CDL). We currently need both drivers and bus monitors, and interested applicants can apply on our website," Vasquez said.

The Merrillville Community School Corp. also is experiencing a bus driver shortage, Public Information Officer Donna Stuckert said.

She said the district also has tried advertising for more drivers, including at the town's 50th anniversary celebration and on an electronic marquee outside the high school.

"We are doing the best we can and looking into all options to get drivers hired. Our transportation director herself and some of our mechanics are even driving routes to help fill in the gaps," Stuckert said.

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