Staff in the school bus industry are continuing to deal with a chronic shortage of drivers.
Benoit Bourgault is the general manager of the Student Transportation Services of Waterloo Region, which organizes the bus driving needs for the two English-speaking school boards in the region.
Across the region, Bourgault says there are some 25 routes in need of drivers. That’s about five per cent of the 470 routes. And besides needing to have all the routes covered, the organization also aims to have an additional 10 per cent capacity of spare drivers to cover absences when others get sick or need to take time off.
Les Cross, regional manager of Student Transportation Canada, the parent company of Elliott Coach Lines, says the industry has faced driver shortages for a few years now. He doesn’t see the situation getting better any time soon due to the number of baby boomers who are leaving the job market altogether.
“It has been a struggle. Not just here, everywhere – pretty much across North America. You can find stories about driver shortages pretty much everywhere. And, really, employee shortages in every industry,” he said.
“The school bus industry is one where it’s a part-time job. For two months in the summer, drivers are laid off and either collecting EI or looking for other jobs. It’s a permanent part-time job that most returned to, but with the changes in cost of living, some people are needing full-time work, so they’re leaving the part-time jobs to take full-time jobs as they come available.”
Cross says the company could use 20 or 25 more drivers to position the operation where he’d like it to be in terms of staff numbers. That includes covering five or six open routes, and having spare drivers to cover absences.
To tackle the problem, Cross says efforts to recruit drivers have been massive. “We’ve never trained as many people as we have this summer.”
He says his company covers the cost of training and offers signing bonuses to the drivers. He also recognizes that bus driving is a stepping-stone job for many new Canadians, so he tries to get more people in the door to be trained, increase the number of trainers available and accept a higher turnover rate that comes with bus driving being seen as a temporary job.
Even with the extra effort to recruit and train more drivers, it’s still not enough. There are still routes without drivers, and they don’t have any extra drivers to cover absences, he said.
Cross and his team cover the cost of training, and provide a sign-on bonus after three months’ work. Cross says the bonus is arranged like this to deter people from gaining their B license and then quickly leaving to take a truck-driving job. “Which, unfortunately, does happen.”
Training takes about 50 hours. That includes the training people need to earn their B-class driver’s license to be able to drive a bus. Drivers also need to pass medical and vulnerable-sector screenings.
Elliot Coach Lines is paid by the Ministry of Education through the school boards, said Cross. “So we’re a bit of a captive group on the way our ability to increase wages. Certainly school boards have stepped up and helped in the last couple of years – they recognize that this is an industry problem and we’re working together to find ways to attract people into the industry,” he said.
But the bigger problem is the nature of bus driving. It’s not full-time work, or year-round and it includes early mornings.
“It’s a difficult job. It’s high responsibility. It’s not long hours. It’s not full-time. It’s not around through the year, it’s only 187 days of the year. So it is that much more difficult to recruit and retain drivers.
“It fits in at one part of your life. Whether it’s early retirement, whether it’s when you have young children, whether it’s you have other employment or projects going on. So it has always been difficult to recruit and retain school bus drivers. In a tight labour market that we face right now, it just compounds the challenge.”
Cross says the turnover rate at Elliot Coach Lines used to be about 10 pe rcent each year, “and that’s now approaching 20, 25 per cent.”
Will changes need to be made to how bus driving is organized?
“Well, we are seeing that already in some areas where they are changing bell times, so that it becomes a bit more of a full-time job. Right now we pay a minimum of four hours a day in wages, it doesn’t matter how long the route is. If it’s three hours, they still get paid for four. And if it’s more than four, they get paid for all the time they work,” he explained.
“There has been discussion around the industry of moving it to a six-hour day, something like that, where there’s just more wages available. But again, it’s got to be funded somehow. Through the Ministry of Education, they obviously are the sole provider of the revenue that is available for drivers and bus companies. So there is work going on behind the scenes to try and get that kind of acknowledgement and support, but it’s tough.
“The one thing about school bus driving, it is a job with real purpose – it’s fulfilling to be part of the education system, to meet these kids every day, and be a part of their lives. The families depend on them.”
Finally, Cross wants parents and other drivers on the road to know that they also play a role in this.
“[Bus driving] is a tough job. The drivers that are out there need their support, patience, and kindness. So if you have a regular driver, you should be very grateful and appreciative and supportive of those folks, especially at the beginning of school. The routes are all new to a lot of people and they run a little late and having a parent angry with a driver for road construction issues is not helpful.”