As U.S, public schools reopen, a shortage looms on the education front almost as problematic as the growing dearth of teachers -- a lack of qualified school bus drivers.
Driving schoolchildren to and from school is "a critically important education job. We need employees. If we cant get children to school then it is pretty tough for the teachers to teach them," Karen Finkel, Executive Director of the National School Transportation Association, a federal lobbying group, told Stateline.org .
Experts blame the booming economy and low unemployment for the shortage of school bus driver applicants. In the past few years, custodians, mechanics and dispatchers sometimes have been drafted to pick up kid and some districts have had to cancel after-school busing and field trips.
The problem was highlighted in last December by School Bus Fleet, an online trade magazine. It ran a survey showing that nearly three of every four school districts nationwide had a school bus driver shortage. (click on survey for general state-by-state school transportation figures.)
Recruiting more drivers has forced some private contractors to go to elaborate lengths to entice candidates.
About 45 percent of the nations school districts use private bus contractors. Laidlaw Education Services, the largest contractor in the United States, have ginned up their recruitment efforts. In some school districts, Laidlaw is offering signing bonuses, buying radio and television ads, and going door-to-door trying to encourage people to become drivers."Not everyone can be a school bus driver," said Jim Igo, Laidlaw's director of driver development and safety. He said training and licensing requirements differ from state-to-state.
No one is sure exactly how bad the school bus driver shortage will be until schools reopen and drivers fail to show up, Finkel said. According to the School Bus Information Council (SBIC) there is no agency or group that collects state-by-state data on drivers, needs, pay or standards.
Connecticut Department of Education spokesman Tom Murphy said he has heard from school superintendents that they are having some trouble finding drivers but, "it is not at a crisis stage."
Traditionally, driver shortages in Connecticut are in Fairfield County, but now the Southeastern part of the state is having problems. The reason, according to Robin Leads, Executive Director of the Connecticut School Transportation Association, is that two big casinos are hiring from the same pool of workers and offering full-time hours. "It decimates the worker pool," she said. Overall, Connecticut is experiencing a 20 percent shortage of drivers.
The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), a union that counts bus drivers as members in some states, cites the jobs part-time status, low pay and low morale due to a perceived lack of respect as factors that makes hiring and retaining drivers difficult.
Average pay ranges from $7.50 to $20.00 an hour and many factors determine the amount including the region, driving conditions and driver experience, according to the SBIC.
The AFTs spokesperson Connie McKenna says respect is a major issue for school bus drivers. "It is one of those jobs people take for granted until they put their child on a school bus and realize it is a job that requires trust and respect," McKenna said.
The AFT is urging policy makers to consider upping driver salaries and Finkel has focused on reforming excessive regulations that hold up the process.
Drivers using their commercial licenses to work as truckers or private drivers is a growing problem. In this robust economy, more and more people are signing up for the free training necessary to qualify for commercial licenses and using them to launch into other jobs.
"The school system and contractors are spending their time and money on people who arent planning on coming back. Some states have restricted the (bus drivers ) licenses to school buses only, if you try to use it you will have to get additional training and testing," Finkel said.